The restaurant's partners decided to spend $250,000 on renovations during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Clásico Italian Chophouse celebrated its 10th anniversary in February just before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
Partners Raff Perna, Kevin Enderle and Dick Rivera were faced with a decision: Did they want to spend $250,000 to renovate the restaurant on the corner of Main Street and North Palm Avenue without knowing when exactly they could reopen?
Perna said they initially planned to renovate starting in September.
“It’s one of those things you do in an entrepreneurial spirit,” Perna said of the decision to begin renovations in March.
Florida’s restaurants were allowed to reopen with restrictions at the start of May, and then with loosened restrictions in June. Perna said he was concerned at the time because nearby restaurants were beginning to reopen while his establishment was still undergoing renovations.
“When we did get opened up, we were a bit behind, but that almost added to the mystique, people come looking into the window and looking to see what we’re doing,” Perna said. “It was neat to see the neighborhood kind of come back to life too.”
Clásico is located at 1341 Main St. and began as a coffee cafe before transitioning to an American-European type bistro for the past eight years. Along with the renovations, Perna, Enderle and Rivera decided to transition again to an Italian chophouse with dishes such as pasta, pizza, steak, pork chops and sandwiches.
“It’s one of those things where the market talks to you, and you listen,” Perna said.
The interior of the restaurant is redone. The overhaul also includes a new menu from executive chef Raymond Ortiz and concept chef Fernando Sanchez.
“We’ve had to remodel. We’ve had to refit the kitchen,” Perna said. “We made a decision that if we’re going to sell a steak, it has to be the best steak you can buy. In other words, you want to go toe-to-toe with Fleming’s or you want to go toe-to-toe with Ruth’s Chris.”
Perna attributes Clásico’s 10-year run to outstanding service from the restaurant’s 48 employees, who had to endure a weeks-long closure during the start of the pandemic. He also spoke of the “village” of people who frequent his restaurant throughout the Sarasota area.
“If you’re going to be in the hospitality business, you have to care about people. Period,” Perna said. “It goes beyond any financial gain.”
Clásico’s motto is “RED”: relax, eat, drink.
The restaurant also features a street-side piano for anyone to play. It began several years ago as part of a program through the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, which placed several pianos throughout downtown. Clásico’s piano is one of the only ones left from the alliance’s program.
Perhaps the defining moment of the program came in the summer of 2015 when a visitor recorded a video of Donald Gould, a homeless man, playing Styx’s “Come Sail Away” on the piano in front of Clásico. The video has millions of views on YouTube, and became a life-changing opportunity for Gould.
“Some of these guys end up back on the street, he’s a success story,” Perna said of Gould. “He ended up meeting a great gal, got married, cut an album and is doing really, really well.”
Perna said he and his Clásico partners are looking into the possibility of adding another location in Sarasota, downtown St. Petersburg or Winter Park. Enderle and Rivera are also involved with downtown Sarasota restaurant Brick’s Smoked Meats.
“We really want to scale this and COVID slowed us down a bit, and so we’re regrouping, but St. Pete is a big target for us because it’s similar to what we have downtown Sarasota on the bayfront,” Perna said. “We happen to love downtown St. Pete on the bayfront, so we're looking for a location there.”