WALLINGFORD — Popular dining spot Michael’s Trattoria plans to expand after space opened up next door.
Michael’s Trattoria at 334 Center St. has been a fixture in Wallingford center for 29 years. When The Dressing Room, a clothing boutique in the same building next to the Italian restaurant, closed, owner Michael Tiscia saw an opportunity to expand his business.
“We are going to put a couple of dining rooms up in the corner and we’re going to enlarge our kitchen area,” Tiscia said. He’s hoping to have the project done in three months, but it all depends on how the renovations go.
“I don’t know when it will be done. If everyone shows up and does the work it’s great but there’s always delays,” he said. “I’m not going to put a date on it yet, but I hope within three months.”
One reason he decided to take the space formerly used by The Dressing Room is to give customers more room, he said, which has become a priority since the pandemic.
"We want to make it roomier and make it more of a spacious restaurant," he said. "Everyone is still concerned about separation. But we've always been good. We always had the right ventilation, and we don't have forced hot air. We have radiators, which is very helpful."
The restaurant has always done well, but was put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We closed for five or six weeks. It was horrible," he said. He offered take out meals, but that was never a part of its operation so it was difficult. "In our kind of sit down business, it doesn't really help that much," he said.
But things are looking up, Tiscia said, as the pandemic continues to recede and things return to normal, including going out to eat.
"Business is returning. It's getting there," he said. "I see ups and downs but it's getting to a steady point again. I'm very optimistic now."
But one remnant of the pandemic persists — the higher cost of operation, Tiscia said.
"The pricing hasn't settled down yet," he said. “The prices are still higher for food and paper goods and all of that."
Finding people to work also has been a challenge, he said, but that too appears to be improving.
"It's coming back," he said. “We were delaying the opening because of the labor shortage. We haven't had a hard time (hiring employees) but it takes a while. But it seems to be getting better."
The restaurant will soon celebrate its 30th anniversary, and Tiscia said he's optimistic it will continue to be successful, in no small part because of its central location.
"Wallingford is a great town. I was here a long time ago and I like the synergy of the restaurants together," he said. "I've been an advocate of that for a long time."
Other businesses, especially the Oakdale Theater, feed into his success, he said. Often when there's a show at the Oakdale, there's a full house at Michael's. Occasionally, even a performer will stop in, as legendary singer Tony Bennett did in 2015.
“Michael’s expansion is just another example of what they can do when they put their minds to it,” Economic Development Commission Chairman Joseph Mira said. “Michael’s is a good example of a quality operation when you serve a quality product.”
But there is one problem that has persisted for years, Tiscia said — the parking. The restaurant relies on public parking areas and street spaces for its customers.
"Parking can be an issue up here because this area is doing pretty good. But I guess that's a good problem to have. People find a way in," he said. "They've been telling me that it's hard to find parking for 29 years. I've been a busy establishment for a long time."
A new parking lot that will be available for use by businesses is expected to be paved in the next three months, according to Mira.
“That’s going to add a lot to the downtown,” he said. “So for that area, they’re really, really covered. There’s plenty of parking down there.”
The Planning and Zoning Commission recently approved increasing density in the Incentive Zone downtown when housing developments are planned which also is going to bring more parking, as well as more potential customers, to the area.
“Another thing that makes the downtown successful, and it’s a secret down there, is the cooperation between new businesses,” Mira said. “They’ve done things where expansion couldn’t have been done without mutual cooperation.
“I give those small businesses a lot of credit for their resilience, how they had to adapt and readapt over the last three to four years,” he said. “They’ve really done a super job down there, each and every one of them.”