By Johanna Calfee
With silver tin ceilings, slick white subway tiles, huge hanging glass ornaments for lights and a menu stuffed full of meats, cheeses, breads and beyond, it’s a deli that looks straight out of New York. Only, it’s not in New York … it’s in Lynchburg. Its name is Catalano’s, an Italian delicatessen now open on Main Street.
Owners and engaged couple, Marisa Catalano and Clinton Jones, opened Catalano’s doors on April 16 this year; a kismet culmination of a process that began the previous spring when Marisa, a Lynchburg native, came down from Charlottesville to visit her family.
“I was [downtown] walking around with my dad … and we noticed the scaffolding up in front of the building, but we were able to walk right in,” Marisa said of the building she once knew as Spanky’s restaurant.
Now owned by Ralph “Chopper” Wilson, the nearly 24,000-square-foot building has been fully renovated and divided into three addresses. Marisa and her father, Dr. Charles Catalano, a local gastroenterologist, immediately saw potential last year when they visited what is now 908 Main Street.
“When we walk in, Chopper’s here and we start talking, and I’m always full of ideas, so I’m just throwing things around with him. And when he told me that this space would have the kitchen in the back. … I went home that night and I said to Clinton, ‘This is an opportunity we need to explore,’” Marisa explained.
From there, the couple began to start carefully planning their new deli. For Marisa, the starting point was all about the food.
“We saw that there was a need for more choices here. Something different, something a little more sophisticated,” she said.
As an Italian-American, food is something Marisa grew up loving to make and enjoy. She readily shares fond memories of making Abruzzi bread–which is now available on Catalano’s menu–with her mother from a very young age.
“There was flour all over the place and we’re rolling the dough and all that stuff. It’s funny because now my mom tells me that she hates cooking and I’m like, ‘Really?’ Because I have such memories of cooking with her,” she said.
With a strong heritage in the kitchen, it didn’t take long for Marisa to find her way back to it. After she graduated from James Madison University with a degree in Communications, she moved to New York City. Her first job in Public Relations lasted only six months, as Marisa said she “couldn’t stand life in a cubicle.”
Soon, her friends linked her to a job waiting tables and bartending, and the passion for food was reignited. She decided to go back to school, this time attending the Institute of Culinary Education on 23rd Street in New York City. She then worked at two celebrated NYC restaurants–Ouest Restaurant, a Tom Valenti-run restaurant on the Upper West Side, and Pearl Oyster Bar on Cornelius Street in the West Village. For Marisa, it was invaluable experience.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do the things that I did without having known that I worked that hot line five nights a week for six months and I was able to do it. And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done before opening [Catalano's],”
Still, as much as she enjoyed working in restaurants, she says she felt the lure of a different food-centric career.
“I didn’t think that my path was to be the owner of a restaurant or the chef in a restaurant, because really what I wanted to do was get into food television,” she said.
Her dream was fulfilled a short time later, when she became a freelance food stylist for the Food Network. While she loved the creative aspect of the business, the hours were long and erratic. And once again, Marisa knew she wanted something different.
“You come to these points in your life where you have to assess where you’re going and where you’re going to move to–and I looked at it and knew I had a choice. If I wanted to pursue being a food stylist, I needed to be able to say, ‘I’m going to live in New York for the next five to 10 years.’ I was 28 years old. I wanted to meet somebody, I wanted to settle down. I was not jazzed about thinking of having a baby in New York City!” she explained.
So, she moved on to Charlottesville, Virginia, a place she chose for what she describes as a “sophisticated restaurant scene” and the close proximity to her parents. It was there, while teaching cooking classes at The Seasonal Cook and Charlottesville Cooking School, that she met Clinton. The connection, she says, was almost instant.
“I say that I stalked him,” Marisa said with a laugh, before explaining that Clinton served coffee from a cart around the corner from where she worked. With an addiction to great coffee and a growing affection for Clinton, she found herself visiting that cart often. One night, they saw each other outside of work, and the rest, they say, is history.
“From the first day that we ever went out, we were together ever since … every day,” Marisa said.
“We get along really well for two people who are always together. I mean, we are always together,” Clinton added.
A shared love for great cuisine and coffee, and similar values about family, helped strengthen their connection. Last August, after four years together, Clinton proposed.
“He waited a long time, as far as I’m concerned. I was ready after the first year!” Marisa laughed.
But for Clinton, the wait was worth it.
“The way I see it is I’m getting married once, that’s it, for the rest of my life. There’s no other option. And I wanted to make sure,” he explained.
For his part, Clinton is a foodie as well. His background includes running numerous cafes, delis and serving gelato in multiple kitchens in Richmond, Virginia, and Boulder, Colorado. Their future destiny seemed apparent–running a restaurant together.
But first, they had to make the move to Lynchburg. After leaving a job running Enoteca Wine Bar, an Italian wine bar and Panini grill in the downtown Charlottesville Mall, Marisa realized she was ready to branch out her their own. With Clinton by her side, they made the leap.
On April 15, the expansive menu was hand written by Clinton on the huge chalkboard wall. The staff had been trained. The food was ready to be prepped. Everything was ready for the big day. Catalano’s was a day away from its grand opening, when a set-back in delivering the Point of Sale (POS) system occurred, setting them up for a very busy–and very difficult–first week in business.
“We were all panicked by what was being thrown at us. … The number of people, and not really knowing too how much we should have of this and make of this, trying to feel that out–it was utter chaos,” Marisa admitted.
After five overwhelming first days, Marisa and Clinton made the call to close down on their first Friday in business–Good Friday before Easter.
“People that I’ve told that I decided to close the Friday of the first week that we were open look at me like I’m insane but I felt like, not only was it the right thing to do for the staff so we could get organized, I also wanted to send them a message that that’s how much I cared about what was going on; that as business owners, we were willing to shut down for the day and not make any money and deal with the ramifications of being closed because we needed to do that and give them the tools to enable them to perform the way that we wanted it to be,” Marisa said.
When Catalano’s reopened the following day on Saturday, the staff was ready. From that day on, Marisa and Clinton agree that their level of service, food presentation and feedback from their customers has improved continually.
“I’d say, 90 percent [of the feedback], it’s been all good,” Clinton said.
“The only thing I can hope for is that people who came that first week who were upset or felt that it wasn’t what they were expecting, that they will come back and give us another chance because I have done everything in my power to make it different and change it and improve,” Marisa added.
With a menu chalked full of paninis and piled high deli sandwiches, two Catalano family recipes for meatballs and eggplant parmigian, Trager Brothers coffee out of Lovingston, Virginia, and “the best gelato I’ve ever had outside of Italy,” made by Palozzolo’s, Marisa’s hope is that Catalano’s customers will relish their offerings as much as she enjoys making them.
“I’ve eaten everything on this menu and I love it all,” she said.
“I think we are adding a little bit of knowledge about different things that people aren’t used to, and now that they’ve tried them once or twice, they really like them and are coming back,” Clinton added. “We have a lot of repeat customers already.”
With daily operations running smoothly, and their customer base steadily growing, Catalano’s is now offering yet another option–catering for business lunches and box lunches on foot to the downtown area, and points beyond with the help of a fun new ride.
“We got a sweet 1978 Ford F-150. It’s awesome because we got it at an auction at the Academy [of Fine Arts], so it was a donation to the Academy, and it’s a sick car. Although someone said to me, it’s an antique and I said, I was born in 1978!” Marisa said.
With their partnership in business and life sealed, and a wedding planned for October 8 at Mountain Lake (where Dirty Dancing was filmed), Marisa and Clinton’s future is sure to be full of creating relationships while serving great food.
“It’s about sharing those moments,” Marisa said. “The food is a part of it and obviously, having good food makes the experience even more meaningful but really, when it comes down to it, it’s about being with people and sharing that experience together.”
Check out Catalano’s menu online at www.catalanosdelicatessen.com.
If you don't have an account, please click here to register. Registration is FREE!