After nearly 50 years of serving up pizza in the West End, The Original Sorrento’s is shuttering its Ellice Avenue location.
"It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my whole life," co-owner Gerry Lomonaco said.
The family-owned restaurant will add takeout and delivery of Original Sorrento’s meals to its catering site in the Caboto Centre at 1055 Wilkes Ave.
Still, the central Winnipeg location is chock-full of memories, and it’s hard to leave, Gerry said. There have been countless weddings, birthday bashes and baptism celebrations. One night found the original Winnipeg Jets dining in; another night, a regular held an after-hours bachelor party.
"We’ve gotten to know generations of families," Gerry said. "We’ve cried when customers have passed away, and then their kids are still coming to Sorrento’s, and their grandkids are coming."
Gerry’s brother Alfonso took co-ownership of Sorrento’s on Portage Avenue in 1975. Alfonso brought Gerry on board.
In the summer of 1985, the siblings opened the Original Sorrento’s on Ellice, which isn’t affiliated with Winnipeg’s other Sorrento’s locations.
Alfonso will be 72 this summer, and his partial retirement is near, Gerry said. Each brother owns 45 per cent of the business, and Alfonso’s absence will leave a large gap at the restaurant.
"A lot of my staff is getting older," Gerry said. "It’s getting a little more difficult to find good staff, so with having both operations under one roof (at the Caboto Centre), I would have access to more staffing, and it’s easier to operate."
Gerry and his team will serve customers their Italian delicacies on Ellice Avenue until January’s final weekend. They’ll transition to takeout and delivery at their Wilkes Avenue location on Feb. 1.
"I’m going to probably work til’ 100, if I live that long," Gerry, 62, said with a laugh.
“I’m going to probably work til’ 100, if I live that long.” – Gerry Lomonaco
The closure isn’t because of a pandemic-related decrease in traffic — the business is still doing well, Gerry said. The family signed on to lease part of the Caboto Centre in 2018 with the eventual plan to amalgamate under the building’s roof.
"It’s not something that I really wanted to do, but just something I feel needs to be done to continue the business for the next, hopefully, 20 years or more," Gerry said.
His daughter Carly Lomonaco runs Sorrento’s catering operations at the southern spot.
"I’m just so excited to have all of my family, my dad, all in one space and working together," she said. "(It’s) kind of how I always envisioned running this operation."
Hours of her childhood were spent making pizzas, folding boxes and, as she entered her teen years, waitressing.
"We, as little kids, were like, ‘OK, this is awesome. We just want to be here all the time,’" she said. "(It’s) our second home."
The restaurant was packed with family — she and her three siblings worked there, as did aunts, uncles. Hundreds of photographs remain as proof.
Heading the catering side of things is "the best thing that’s ever happened to me," Carly said. The parties have continued at the Caboto Centre, along with fundraisers, high school graduations, Mother’s Day events and more. The site can hold 400 people.
"We can go as fancy as a five-star Michelin restaurant or as low key and humble as our family recipes," Carly said of the menu offerings.
The catering side has been non-existent during extended periods of the pandemic, but the coming months are booked with weddings, Carly said.
“We can go as fancy as a five–star Michelin restaurant or as low key and humble as our family recipes.” – Carly Lomonaco
The Original Sorrento’s may eventually set up in-person dining, but it won’t be offered anytime soon, she said.
Takeout hours could be later than the 9 p.m. close seen at the Ellice location, Gerry said.
"After 9 o’clock, our business really isn’t that busy," he said, adding he’s had many customers tell him they don’t feel safe in the West End location.
In the 80s, the place used to be packed into the wee hours of the morning.
"There are perceptions (of danger) that people have of the neighbourhood," said Joe Kornelsen, executive director of the West End BIZ. "But… we know the business community continues to be interested in setting up (here)."
He said the area had seen net gains from 2015 through the beginning of 2020. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, 144 businesses have closed or left the West End. Another 89 opened or moved into the area.
"We know that it (isn’t) related to this specific location," Kornelsen said, adding places across the globe have faced widespread business closures.
The Original Sorrento’s marks the third long-time Italian restaurant’s closure in the area. Casa Grande Pizzeria closed in October of 2020, and Paradise Restaurant closed its Portage Avenue location in November of 2019.
An African eatery — Rimyya Friendship Bar and Restaurant — will take over The Original Sorrento’s space on Ellice.
Some of the Original Sorrento’s 14 staff will follow the company to Wilkes Avenue, including co-owner Brigida D’Ottavio, Gerry’s sister. Others may work at Rimyya, Gerry said.
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