@Photo CUTLINE:Domenico Pelliccia, known by customers for his warmth and friendliness, will say goodbye to his loyal customers on December 31, when Chianti Italian Restaurant closes its doors after 24 years of serving up classic Italian dishes. - Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith
CONYERS -- For 24 years, Syble and Rick Henderson have celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and just regular nights out at Chianti Italian Restaurant. The Hendersons have been loyal customers since the restaurant first opened its doors on Ga. Highway 20.
They love the ambiance and the friendly nature of owner Domenico Pelliccia and his staff.
"You feel like you're going to a family reunion when you go there. Domenico and his staff are just like cousins. You go in there and they hug you. You just don't get that kind of service anywhere else," Syble Henderson said.
So, given the emotional connection for Henderson, it's no surprise that she cried when she learned Chianti would be closing on New Year's Eve.
"I'll cry again when I'm over there the last day. I could not believe it," she said.
Pelliccia is grateful for loyal customers like the Hendersons, but, he said, "The economy is what it is."
Pelliccia said he simply can't afford to stay open. He discontinued lunch service several years ago because he wasn't turning any profit.
"I have a good clientele but it's shrinking with the times," he said, adding that he's sorry for his employees, many of whom have been with him for years.
The economy is mostly to blame, he said, but also noted that the city of Conyers doesn't offer enough entertainment and nightlife to keep folks local.
"If people want to spend money, they have to go out of town," he said.
Pelliccia said he had hoped to sell the restaurant, but could not.
Pelliccia came from Italy to America in 1979; Chianti is his fourth restaurant. He closed a restaurant in Atlanta in 1989 to be closer to family in Conyers.
Chianti is an oddity these days, as Pelliccia is committed to making desserts, bread, sauce and just about everything else from scratch. Most restaurants order the food already cooked, then just heat it up, he said.
"I don't know why people go out to eat when you can buy that at Kroger," he said. Pelliccia won't think of doing it any other way than homemade, despite all the effort and extra cost.
Pelliccia said it's difficult to compete with large chain restaurants, which can buy by the truckload and get a discount on food. Another costly factor in keeping a restaurant going is food prices, he said, noting that they have doubled over the years, with veal rising from $2.95 a pound to $16.95 a pound, and the fish he purchases increasing by nearly $10 a pound.
Folks are increasingly turning away from small, quality-oriented restaurants for cheaper fare, and much of that has to do with affordability, Pelliccia said. But, he also said that while $10 for homemade lasagna is considered expensive, people are willing to pay the same or more for fast and easy food that doesn't require much effort to prepare. And gone are the days when a man courted a woman by taking her to a nice restaurant and ordering a bottle of wine, he said.
"This kind of restaurant, I believe, is finished," he said.
Syble Henderson said that another issue may be that due to so many newcomers in town, many don't know about Chianti.
"I'll see somebody and I'll say, 'You've been to Chianti?' They'll say, 'Where is that?'" she said. "I will miss them so much because they've been so sweet and kind over the years. It's our favorite place to eat."
Pelliccia said his most fond memories are of his children working with him when they were younger. "It was family-oriented and fun to work," he said.
At 61, Pelliccia said he's too old to open a restaurant somewhere else, noting that it takes four or five years to establish a name and clientele. Instead he plans to do a bit of farming and enjoy his retirement, even though it came several years earlier than he planned.
"I thank all my customers from the bottom of my heart. I thank everybody for giving my family the opportunity to raise my kids. ... I really appreciate it and I wish you the best of luck."
Pelliccia said he will stay in Conyers because his family is here and invited his customers to keep in touch with him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.