Restaurant Scene: Louis Bucci applies his business recipe to West End Village

Tartine sits on a corner of Main Street in the quiet West End Village, a daytime spot serving Croque Monsieur, vichyssoise and Nicoise salad. From Edith Piaf on the playlist to Eiffel Tower prints on the wall, there's little here that says Pittsburgh, with the exception of the restaurateur who runs the place: Louis Bucci.

Standing by the door in a green sweater and khakis, Mr. Bucci greets customers and shakes hands.

"I'm an old-fashioned guy," he says.

Though he loves restaurants such as New York's Balthazar and knows the year Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. (it's 1971), he does not embrace trends.

"They make for good headlines but not always great restaurants."

Pittsburgh native Mr. Bucci, 72, has seen the rise and fall of more than 44 restaurants -- in gentrifying neighborhoods to prime locations -- from San Diego to Denver to New Hampshire ski towns. He was the founder of The Starring Roll, which he sold before it became the national chain Quizno's.

His warm demeanor and his wealth of stories make Mr. Bucci a Pittsburgh gem, although lesser-known than restaurateurs such as Serafino's, Tessaro's, Enrico's and Tambellini's of the city. He has lived many lives.

His work life has followed a pattern of climbing the ranks and then defecting before the fall, be it the company's or his own.

Early in his career he opened 14 Bratskellars out west over 17 years. "Everyone thought I was on top of the world but I was on the edge of a cliff," he says.

The toll of his increasingly wild lifestyle and decadent habits prompted him to resign. He returned to Denver from Beverly Hills, Calif., and spent the year as a bartender, earning extra tips by performing card tricks for customers. Before long, he was approached to become the western regional vice president of the Playboy Club. "You want to know why I stayed single for so long?"

It was a rhetorical question.

After several more legs to the journey with highs and lows that mellowed as he grew older, Mr. Bucci returned to the area in the early 1990s, first to close a local chain called Maggie Mae's (following business strategies so it would lose the least amount of money), and later to open London Grille in Mt. Lebanon's Galleria with investor Jim Delligatti, the man who invented the Big Mac.

Tartine is a far cry from the 250-seat London Grille. Instead it's a modest eatery on a Main Street that's just coming to life. The restaurant is a draw for women in particular, with feminine decor and a menu of greens, quiche, sweets and sandwiches.

The food is good, but not great. And that's the point for now as he attempts to build up the neighborhood. Tartine opened with Michael Rado as the consulting chef. He has since moved on and has been replaced by a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a former cook at the Duquesne Club, Downtown.

On a recent Saturday, Mr. Bucci is testing variations of gruyere and white cheddar for macaroni and cheese, for which elbows swap with gemelli and toasted bread crumbs garnish the dish. "The menu features all my recipes," he says.

The son of a fighter-turned-baker, Mr. Bucci gravitates toward underdog neighborhoods with potential, diversity and a strong sense of place, much like the Hill District where he grew up. "It was more of an Italian community than Bloomfield. It was also a very strong Jewish community," he says.

The neighborhood Mr. Bucci is so fond of was dismantled by construction of the Civic Arena. After serving in the Vietnam War, he returned to Pittsburgh briefly, then moved to Denver where he spent most of his career.

Mr. Bucci claims he picked up a guardian angel while he served, or at the very least a sharper nose for making business and life decisions, such as one that led him back to Pittsburgh after being away for 35 years.

When he returned here at age 60, he met his future wife, the head of the English department at Robert Morris University, Diane Todd Bucci. "I thought I was going to write the manual on how to be single," he says. "But thankfully, I blew that."

Mr. Bucci's little restaurant, inspired by Pierre's in Bridgehampton, N.Y., plays a different role than just satiating diners' lunch cravings.

As a major residential and commercial property holder in the neighborhood, Mr. Bucci hopes to revitalize this area rebranded West End Village.

His efforts started more than a decade ago as president of the West End Village for Regional Development organization. Term limits he implemented pushed him out of the position, and Tartine is his newest gig.

Compared with his former life, Tartine may seem like small potatoes. But if history is any indicator, many of Mr. Bucci's investments often turn to gold.

His secret: "I always look for a hole in the market," he says, "then I look for a hook."

"Ask people what their favorite Italian restaurant is and you'll get a million answers," he said. "Ask people what their favorite steakhouse is and you'll get five answers." Before he opened London Grille, he did just this, with a final question: Where to get the best prime rib? His question was often met with silence. "Hole in the market."

Pair prime rib with his hook -- Yorkshire pudding, which he learned to make on a trip to London. "It's a great presentation," he says. Yorkshire pudding looks like a cross between a souffle and a popover.

Shortly after he bought out Mr. Delligatti's investment, Mr. Bucci closed the London Grille when the rent doubled and health issues required him to take a break.

By 2003, he had already begun buying property in West End Village. He compares the neighborhood to early Lawrenceville and Shadyside.

"It's a five-block Main Street. It's accessible to Downtown. Architects and law firms are moving here from the South Side," he says. And the home of Pittsburgh Musical Theater, also on Main Street, will be renovated and expanded by May.

"We have a post office, the village green, a bank and a library," he says. "We tore down wooden telephone poles. We planted new trees. We're doing all the work to build the community."

Sometimes a restaurant serves as the most visible sign of change, a harbinger of a neighborhood turn-around.

Tartine fills that role, with Mr. Bucci steering the transition.


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