“Depending what goes on with the world, we are looking at an April grand reopening,” says Brian Holleran, who along with Brian Moss runs the popular west-side pizza joint Il Rione
(1303 W. 65th St., 216-282-1451).
The three-year-old Gordon Square eatery has been closed to dine-in service since March, instead focusing solely on take-out business. But the so-called "down time" has given the owners some much-needed bandwidth to complete some major physical improvements to the 120-year-old building.
When Il Rione opened, it did so with an occupied rear apartment that gobbled up space behind the bar and kitchen areas. When that tenant decamped, Holleran and Moss set to work converting the space for restaurant purposes, which they have been doing for months. When completed, Il Rione will gain a prep kitchen with walk-in cooler and dough-prep station and a second dining room.
“We didn’t have any money when we opened the place,” Holleran explains. “Ideally, we would have had the whole entire place done, but we needed the apartment to help pay our mortgage.”
Located directly behind the current bar, the new dining room will provide essential seating. Fans of the no-reservation pizza parlor know that wait times on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights can climb as high as a couple hours. The additional seating should cut those waits in half, according to Holleran. The room (and its attached covered patio) also can be rented out as private dining space, an area that can extend into the backyard.
Much of the appeal to Il Rione – in addition to its tantalizing New York-style pies – comes from the buzzy, intimate vibe that the owners have expertly cultivated. They vow to maintain that vibe when the second dining room rolls out.
“I want people when they walk in to go, What is this and where the hell are we?!” Holleran says of the new room. “It’s got be the coolest room in town. I didn’t want people to feel like they were being banished to the back room.”
In non-distancing times, the room should accommodate about 18 diners or 40 or so in one private group. The room will feature gothic-style arched windows, church-pew bench seating and vintage burlesque artwork. A pair of couches and cocktail tables will offer a few fortunate guests a pleasant perch at which to wait for a table. When the twin rolling doors are ajar, the opening to the new dining room is a full eight-feet wide.
“It will be a big, huge opening in the hallway, so it will feel like it’s all one big, cohesive restaurant, with the same music playing in both rooms,” he adds. “The goal is to always have that intimate feel, but with being able to accommodate more people when needed.”
Holleran estimates that even with distancing, the combined spaces of the side patio, main and second dining rooms will approach those of pre-Covid. When it does reopen, it will do so with reservations and dining time limits.
As is often the case, the stresses of the current situation have given rise to some beneficial changes. Holleran says that the temporary shift to take-out-only business will improve future dine-in service and might even lead to company expansion.
“Over the summer time, we turned into a pizza factory – and it was going gangbusters,” he says. “Because things got so intense [with take-out business], we are turning out pies so much faster than when we were a sit-down restaurant, because we had to! We’ve had a chance now to sit and consider how to do things most efficiently. We basically opened a new restaurant, something we could totally replicate somewhere else if we wanted to.”
One thing that will not change, Holleran promises, is that quintessential Il Rione dining experience, from the drinks, to the food, to the atmosphere.
“There are all these other places that are seasonal,” he says. “I think people come to Il Rione because you want this certain thing. It's comfort food, so we try and change very little. People get comfortable with things and I love that. We want to make the experience as consistent as possible.”
And as for those possible future locations, Holleran says, “Once this building is physically done – because it was a disaster – once this place is a completely renovated space then we can maybe consider something else.”