To say there were a lot of excited people at Pastori's Restaurant in Ellington to watch a screening of its featured debut on "Restaurant: Impossible" Wednesday night would be an understatement.
The patio, bar and dining room were filled with customers and well-wishers waiting to see put Ellington on the map on the Food Network show. Pastori's has been a fixture – make that a town landmark – for three decades, 25 years with the Savvidis family.
Just as the show's intro came on, cheers erupted in the crowd.
“To see my customers stand up and applaud – how nice was that?” said owner Billy Savvidis. Cheers continued when Robert Irvine said, “I'm going to do whatever I can to save Pastori's Restaurant.”
For many in attendance at the premiere, it was a chance to support a local family and business. When Judy Schelkun and David Steffan moved to Ellington a year-and-a-half ago from Wisconsin, Pastori's was their first real encounter with the town.
“The day we moved into Deer Valley, we had no food,” said Schelkun. “We went to Big Y to pick up the necessities. We passed Pastori's and I said, 'let's just go eat dinner there.'”
Steffan said he and Schelkun consider themselves regular customers, considering Billy and Georgia as friends.
The "Restaurant: Impossible" journey began on a snowy January evening, when Georgia Savvidis was snowed in at the restaurant overnight. She saw the show on Food Network, starring celebrity chef Robert Irvine. With two days and $10,000, "Restaurant: Impossible" makes over struggling restaurants, particularly in the areas of décor and menu choices.
In the case of Pastori's, the establishment offered a 400-item menu and was losing $8,000 a month in revenue. There created friction in the family, particularly between Billy and his son, Steve, who was a Pastori's chef. The two were often at odds over restaurant responsibilities and Steve admits he was fired at least 30 times and quit a dozen.
Savvidis decided to apply and submitting the application after few weeks, receiving notification that it would take a few months for the show to reach a decision.
A few days later, in February, "Restaurant: Impossible" came calling, asking to interview Georgia, Billy and some employees. Georgia didn't think much would come of it, so she didn't tell anyone. She recorded the show on Tivo and had Billy watch it, though he didn't take it seriously. So she had him watch it again, and when he asked why, she told him show representatives were coming to Pastori's.
After interviewing Billy, Georgia, their children, customers and employees, the Savvidis' were told they would hear in a few months whether Pastori's was chosen. In March, they found out "Restaurant: Impossible" would be coming to Ellington in May.
“We took the news fairly well,” said Svetlana Grishtaev, an eight-year employee at Pastori's. “We were excited, but apprehensive about people intruding on our space, and would Billy take criticism well?”
The staff filled out a two-page questionnaire that inquired about Pastori's brand in the community, their likes and dislikes and who they did and didn't respect at the restaurant.
On May 17, the show's crew took over the bar with their equipment as the production and staging area.
When Robert Irvine came on May 18, they taped a “lunch wave.” Construction began at 2 p.m. on that Wednesday and lasted until 6 p.m. on Thursday. No one in the family was allowed to see the transformation until the reveal on the evening of May 19.
Peter Desmond, of Vernon, his wife Marcy, and his sister Sara Zitka, of Ellington, helped transform Pastori's by laying flooring and moving furniture.
“We worked until about one in the morning, Zitka said. "It was pouring out and we were running furniture out to a trailer in the back.”
Zitka even came back to help on May 19 – in the final hours before the big reveal.
“It was a great experience and a lot of fun,” Zitka said.
Durning construction, Irvine and Chef Lee, a featured chef on the show, worked on the menu with the kitchen staff.
“We had two high-level chefs here, so I took in as much information as I could,” said Brendan Lally, a cook who has been at Pastori's for a year-and-a-half and who has lived in Ellington most of his life. He said the show was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
With the guidance of Irvine and Chef Lee, Pastori's now has a fresh, streamlined menu, which includes entrees such as tuna steak, pan seared scrod, a Tuscan burger and veal bolognese, and new appetizers including tuna sliders and little neck steamers, to name a few. There are no longer six pages of choices.
“It was overwhelming – too much to pick from,” admitted Gae Tate, longtime Pastori's patron and Ellington native. “I always ended up ordering the same thing, because there was way too much on the menu.”
Eighty percent of the menu came from recommendations from the show, however Pastori's kept its mainstay pizza and grinders.
Another change long-time customers will notice is that you no longer seat yourself. Pastori's now has a hostess.
On the night of the restaurant reveal and taping, Tate and her husband Bob were among the lucky ones to snag a table.
“It was amazing,” she said. “It was clean and crisp. It was hard to imagine what it was going to look like, but it fits perfectly with the town of Ellington. The designer did a good job.”
That night, while Tate dined on steak, her husband, who loves calamari and has it everywhere he goes, had the Pastori's calamari.
“He said it was the best he's ever had,” said Tate.
When it came to the reveal, everyone was in tears, wrought with emotion – even Robert Irvine. Bartender Eric Tenney had a unique experience watching the reveal in the bar area, where he was preparing drinks.
“They let the family in and Marc Summers (the show's producer) started calling camera shots fast and furious to catch the emotion,” Tenney said. “He's calling camera shot after camera shot and the family is crying and hugging and Marc Summers is literally barking orders. Then he said, 'are you seeing what I'm seeing? Is Robert Irvine tearing up? He never cries – stay on him!'”
For Lally, the show taught him more than just cooking a mean dish that patrons love.
“I learned more about life than I did about cooking in those few days,” he said. “I learned to take pride in things, not just do it to do it. The show taught me at any level you can do something and do your best at it, whether it's a cook or a dishwasher. Enjoy what you do – put your all into it.”
And the family dynamic is back in balance – Steve is back, splitting duties with his father.
“We needed to grow and learn,” said Steve. “We've got to work together and move forward. Tomorrow's another day.”
“Were we dying? No,” said Billy Savvidis, who said the restaurant wasn't really in danger of closing. “In the show, they made it look like we were dying. We were a good place, but they made us great. We were stagnant and we're not stagnant anymore.”
“I'm glad we were able to put Ellington on national TV for something good,” said Georgia Savvidis. “If we fail in a year, we've learned that family is more important. We'll go on to bigger and better ventures.”
The show, expected to be one of the highest rated episodes of "Restaurant: Impossible" ever, will run again at 9 p.m. on Aug. 31 on the Food Network.
The Savvidis family would like to thank the Pastori's employees, their extended family, Ken Boynton Construction in Vernon, Dalene Flooring, Timber Ridge Landscaping in Ellington and the customers who helped make the project a reality.
Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on .