L'Opera co-owner Enzo DeMuro greets little Matteo, 6, and co-owner Terry Antonelli welcomes Christine and Roberto Saracino back to the restaurant where the couple met 20 years ago. (Tracey Roman/For the Press-Telegram)
LONG BEACH - On the eve of the 36th Annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, L'Opera Ristorante co-owner Terry Antonelli had been chatting with a customer who remembered walking the space with him before the business opened 20 years ago.
At that time, the 101 Pine Ave. location - a corner space in a building that first opened in 1906 as a Bank of America
- looked nothing like a place that could serve food, much less fine Italian dining.
"It was like a bomb shelter, all steel beams, no windows, no doors, nothing," Antonelli
"We had to walk down scaffolding to get down below and (the customer) said, 'Are you crazy?' And I said, 'Yeah, I might be.' "
, a native New Yorker, was crazy about opening a restaurant downtown, with its high-rises and promise of vertical living.
saw potential in Long Beach.
"Here's this large metropolitan city with no restaurants," said Antonelli
, who used to live in Naples.
I think that not only Terry
and Enzo were great employers but great friends.
Downtown was a very different place when Antonelli
and DuMuro opened L'Opera
There was a Naval shipyard, no Blue Line and a couple of restaurants open, Antonelli
, which sought to bring authentic, Italian fine dining to Long Beach, was "successful out of the gate," quickly becoming one of the top 150 Italian restaurants in the country, Antonelli
"It's not that we cater to those people, because we treat everyone the same, but when you have people who have dining experiences all over the world, and they call this their favorite restaurant, it's pretty special," Antonelli
In recent years, the slow-to-rebound recession has tested L'Opera like other restaurants, prompting Antonelli
and DeMuro to cover a few restaurant shifts and re-examine ways to save money without sacrificing quality.
The landlord has been very cooperative as well, Antonelli
"We've learned a lot through this recession because we've looked at a lot of areas we weren't looking at before," Antonelli
Without that food and service you just don't last in this business," Antonelli