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Giuseppe Mirenda, whose family owns La Trattoria and the Sicilia Mia Restaurant Group, remembers the beginning of March 2020 vividly. La Trattoria had just had its best week since opening in January in Salt Lake City’s 15th and 15th neighborhood.
“We were doing amazing. We were busy every night,” Mirenda said, noting sales had grown by 300%.
Within days, however, the spread of the coronavirus forced the restaurant to pivot, from attempting to remain open by complying with new health guidance to closing its dining room on March 17.
Mirenda, depressed, didn’t leave home for two weeks. He wondered whether the new restaurant would reopen, and if so, when.
While he and his family didn’t have any clear answers, they put a plan into motion, developing a to-go menu for their restaurants and using the downtime to remodel the buildings. Now, about a year since it first opened, La Trattoria has transformed inside and out, adjusting to survive the pandemic.
“Sometimes you’re going to win, sometimes you’re going to lose. Sometimes you’re going to succeed, sometimes you’re not going to succeed,” Mirenda said. “We’re OK with that. … When we start, we say, ‘We already lost.’ That’s how we start. It’s up to us to go up.”
Who orders a gold-coated steak?
From the beginning, the Mirendas intended La Trattoria to be a step up from its sister restaurants — a no-rush, fine-dining experience with the highest quality ingredients, traditional recipes from different regions of Italy crafted by chef Francesco Mirenda (the restaurant’s namesake and Mirenda’s father) and tableside service.
The original menu included more than 40 items, featuring a dozen pastas, such as the family’s famous carbonara, and 10 price points for its steak, depending on the cut and choice between three sauces or the 24-karat gold and truffles. Mirenda said guests who ordered the more extravagant dishes included Utah’s upper echelon — businesspeople, doctors and professional sports players — although the restaurant serves a range of diners.
But to survive the pandemic, Mirenda knew things had to change.
When La Trattoria resumed dine-in service in mid-July, it felt more like a grand opening, with a new menu with fewer dishes and lower prices. The Piedmontese and wagyu steaks remained (with the option to add truffles), although the gold-encrusted version received the ax, out of concern that it might not sell during the pandemic and the stigma surrounding the cost, Mirenda said — though he noted that patrons can still request it.
He said the family made the changes to make La Trattoria “more comfortable for everybody.”
“[The food is] always amazing, but now, without bringing down the quality, you still can get the same food for less,” he said.
The Mirendas also unveiled The Lounge at La Trattoria, the family’s pandemic project.
Initially, they had planned to use the storage space next door to La Trattoria as a pastry shop but determined that would cost too much, Mirenda said. So they created The Lounge instead, envisioning a bar where guests could order all-day tapas with a cocktail or a late-night meal with a glass of wine — “something easy … not filling, just light, enjoyable.”
The remodel included touching up and removing chicken wire from an aging Wonder Bread mural painted on the exposed brick wall that divides the bar and dining rooms. The Mirendas also hung a 10,000-plus piece tile mosaic featuring newlyweds, and added tufted blue and gray accent chairs and Venetian glasses for a modern, but elegant vibe.
“We said if we go out, we go out with a boom,” he said. “… This is a good time to actually do things. Was it a good time to spend the money? Maybe not. But we were, ‘This or nothing.’”
Still, Mirenda said he felt scared about reopening.
They had lost the momentum gained at the beginning of 2020, and they had spent a fair amount on remodeling and payroll when the restaurants were closed. Now, they had to reintroduce La Trattoria to the community, hoping diners would return despite the ongoing pandemic.
Business was boom or bust, dictated by surges in positive caseloads and health mandates.
“It happened, I think, two times or three times … from going up, up, up — boom! — down. From going up, up — boom! — down again. And that hurt a lot,” Mirenda said.
A casualty, at least for time being, was The Lounge, which became extra seating for La Trattoria’s 21-and-older diners.
Local ingredients, luxurious food
In mid-November, La Trattoria made a few more adjustments.
Citing a desire to give back to guests and support local farms, the Mirendas overhauled the menu once more, keeping it relatively small but focusing instead on seasonal ingredients. They also committed to using all local vendors.
Each dish still looks — and tastes — luxurious. Imagine a plate filled with paper-thin prosciutto and figs on a ricotta-smeared focaccia drizzled in a fig reduction. Or a creamy pappardelle finished inside a wheel of cheese and topped with wisps of shaved black truffle.
And it’s all made as fresh as possible, from the lamb ragu that Mirenda’s grandmother sometimes helps prepare in the morning before it braises for eight hours, to the fettuccine, tortellini and other pastas made by hand each morning.
“We’re choosing quality over quantity and we’re choosing to be a different level restaurant,” he said, later adding, “We kind of break the barrier for everybody. That’s what we want to do again [at La Trattoria].”
For instance, the Mirendas in October introduced an a la carte do-it-yourself meal kit, rounding out the streamlined, pasta-heavy to-go menu and family meal options (order at LaTrattoriaDiFrancesco.com). Compared to the other takeout options, the DIY kits require some hands-on cooking, such as boiling the fresh pasta for three to four minutes and finishing it in a sauce. It’s an idea Mirenda said the family also is exploring as a subscription service.
Indeed, the Mirendas are always looking toward the future, so you can expect a new menu for spring and more adjustments along the way. One thing, however, will never change: La Trattoria is a family affair, rooted deep in tradition and a passion for Italian food.
“The main reason why we’re doing it is because of love,” Mirenda said. “We’re not doing it because we think there is the business. We do it first for love and of course then we need to eat, too. But it all starts with the love.”
La Trattoria di Francesco
1500 S. 1500 East
Hours: 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Order takeout, family meals and DIY kits: LaTrattoriaDiFrancesco.com
Follow Larrisa Beth Turner on Twitter: @belowthewillow