Published May 04. 2014 4:00AM
New London - Roberto Schiano showed up in America from Italy with $300 in his pocket and no idea what he would do with his life.
So the fact that he has just spent thousands of dollars to update and rebrand one of the nine Illiano's restaurants he co-owns without the slightest idea whether it will work doesn't faze him a bit.
"We've been doing this for decades," he said. "We figured why not try something different?"
Schiano said he has been talking with other Illiano's managers, including co-owner Paul Illiano, about changing up the restaurant's mix for some time.
Visits to places like New York City and New Haven have convinced him that a new trend is em erging that focuses on restaurants as an entertainment experience.
"I saw these pizza shops are no longer just pizza shops," Schiano said.
So he spent two months creating a new burgundy-colored lounge area with the help of contractor Gary Joyner at the Illiano's on Bank Street while adding a bar menu and lowering some of his prices. The bar fare includes nachos, mac and cheese bites, chicken wings, small grinders and other finger food served in a relaxed atmosphere.
He also has brought over from Naples a nephew, 23-year-old Luigi Conte, to help run the place, newly renamed Paesano's Pizza Bar & Bistro by Illiano's. The reconfigured lounge, featuring a good-sized bar, has retained the distinctive circular mural of angels that dominated the ceiling of the place previously known as Illiano's.
Schiano said the New London rebranding is a bit of an experiment. If it works here, he said, it may be incorporated at other Illiano's around the state.
"We thought it was a good time to do this," he said. "It's attracting a younger crowd."
Now 53, Schiano started in the pizza business with Illiano during the late 1970s and 1980s, when simple family dining at reasonable prices was all it took to keep everyone happy.
The pair started at a pizza shop in New Jersey, and for a time Schiano went as far afield as Mississippi, Texas and Georgia before joining his friend in 1995 to open the first Illiano's on Broad Street in Waterford. The business quickly grew, and they added new restaurants that include two places in Middletown and one each in Meriden, Colchester, Norwich, Old Lyme, East Lyme and New London.
But now, Schiano said, dining is more of an entertainment, and a wide range of menu offerings - including gluten-free fare - is required. The new lounge features a good-size bar and televisions to watch sporting events.
"It's a completely different world," he said. "We had to update."
Now, gorgonzola and feta cheese pizzas sit on the menu side-by-side with the usual mozzarella offerings, he said. Illiano's still offers its well-loved New York-style pizzas, but the smaller pie has been reduced to 12 inches, with an adjustment in price as well.
The menu has been simplified, Schiano said, though such favorites as chicken Francaise remain and a few new salads have been added.
"I'm not just the pizza guy anymore," Schiano said. "We got more, so come on in."
Still, in most of his stores, pizza accounts for more than 60 percent of the restaurant's sales, Schiano said.
"We buy the best, most expensive cheese and sauces out there," he said. "I don't even know how much it is a pound."
Schiano said the pizza business has been good to him, and he is now reinvesting in New London - a place he believes in.
"We need New London to get up" he said. "New London is a little on the down side. We need every building to be taken. We can bring New London back."