By Tom McParland
Christopher Bonacci was raised on food and family.
From learning to cook his father’s favorite dishes to sharing big Italian dinners with up to 40 relatives on Sunday nights, he knows how to bring people together over a good meal.
So, it wasn’t all that surprising when Bonacci and his wife, Shauna, opened their first restaurant, Christopher’s Downtown, last month in the City Centre One building downtown.
“It’s a family operation,” said Christopher Bonacci, who grew up on the North Side of Youngstown.
It’s also a quick stop with a “gourmet twist” for downtown professionals looking for lunch or a drink after work, he said. The menu features a mix of appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches and daily specials.
Bonacci said he draws on ingredients from local vendors and prepares the food daily.
“I’m obsessed with freshness,” Bonacci said. “It’s just what I’ve committed to.”
The idea, he said, is to expand the to-go service the restaurant already offers to provide delivery and catering services straight to the offices of his downtown clientele.
“We’d like to eventually be able to walk food to offices downtown,” Bonacci said.
Another idea, Shauna said, is to offer large Friday takeout specials each week.
The Bonaccis are no strangers to the food-service industry. They have been operating a catering company together since 2007.
They are, however, new to the restaurant business, and they admit to a bumpy transition.
“Right now, we’re in a learning process. Everything that we’re doing here is learning,” Christopher said. “To me, every day is learning in this field.”
The restaurant business, he said, requires more flexibility than catering, where food orders are set weeks in advance and there is a large staff to serve it.
“We’re going to work on our speed and efficiency in getting people back to work,” he said. “We will master it.”
But the restaurant’s opening alone proved that the Bonaccis can adapt quickly. After hearing about the open space, they jumped at the opportunity and opened in only a month.
“This was our first time opening a bar, so there was a lot to learn with that,” Shauna said. The liquor license was already in place, she said, acquired by the building’s owner, Richard Mills. “The space was ready, but everything else we had to bring in.”
The space has been in existence since the 1970s, Christopher said. Most recently, it was occupied by a bar called End of the Tunnel.
Though it is not the most visible spot — located in the basement of the City Centre One structure — it does have its advantages, Shauna said. It can accommodate about 70 people, and those working and parking at the building don’t have to venture outside, she added.
But then there was the problem of having to quickly find a staff and get the word out.
“My biggest struggle so far was finding a staff, a reliable staff,” Christopher said. “We have that in place now.”
They hired seven workers, and with a set staff in place, he said he would be personally handing out fliers to potential customers.
He also is getting help from his 19-year-old daughter, Sammantha, a student at Youngstown State University.
He joked that he would hire his other children, Serena, 9, and Christian, 6, if they were only old enough to work.
“They’re a little young to be working here,” he quipped. “At age 9, Serena knows how to serve. We just can’t have her serve here.”
Sammantha said that for her dad, opening a restaurant downtown is a dream come true.
“I’m extremely happy for him, and I think he deserves this ... because when he wants something, he works until he gets it,” she said. “He’s the one who’s always inspired me to work for my dreams.”
The restaurant is also a tribute to Christopher’s late father, Joseph, a retired Youngstown police officer who died of cancer four years ago.
“This was his dying dream — for my dad to have his own restaurant,” Sammantha said.
“He would be really happy right now,” he added.
Christopher’s Downtown is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.