Napolatano’s, Gainesville’s Oldest Independently-Owned Restaurant, Finds Lasting Success Behind Loyal Customer Base
by Mike Capshaw
And making their way in the competitive restaurant world takes everything Ginger and Dean Nappy have got. From their humble beginning 35-plus years ago along a then-two-lane Newberry Road, to their 5,000-plus square-foot restaurant today, they genuinely care about customers. Their employees often call regulars by name and even remember their favorite fare.
That, along with an ever-evolving menu of tasty cuisine, has made Napolatano’s Gainesville’s oldest independently owned restaurant.
It’s something of which Ginger never dreamed, much less had planned when her new husband, Dean, convinced her to leave Long Island, N.Y. to open a restaurant in Florida in the fall of 1978.
“I left all of my Christmas ornaments up there and thought, ‘OK, I’ll be back in a year,’” Ginger said. “Because at 21-years old, that’s the way you think … so my Christmas ornaments are still up there (laughs).”
After transforming an old shoe shop into a restaurant, they opened in January of 1979 in a 600-square foot spot (now Vegan2Go) at 7625 W. Newberry Road. Those early days featured mostly carry out and delivery orders because there were only a few stools and picnic tables for dining in. “It was a cute little place,” Ginger said. It also was successful – and sometimes comical.
“We shared that building with a 7-Eleven so when the gas truck would come in, we were blocked from people coming in,” Ginger said. “People used to come into 7-Eleven and leave their cars in neutral and then it would roll across Newberry Road and then fall like 100-feet down to where Kmart was built … So many times we would run out and get in the car to stop it, but it would roll all the way across the road and never get hit because that’s how little traffic there was on the road.”
Still, traffic into Napolatano’s was growing. With few dining options in western Alachua County at the time, Napolitano’s was attracting regulars from Newberry and surrounding areas. That, coupled with the “gas truck situation,” resulted in the need for a larger location, so they moved into the building “at the bottom of the hill” near the current location at 606 NW 75th Street. (The spot later became Maui Teriyaki and soon will open as Sushi-2-Go.)
“They had just built it and it had a dirt floor,” Ginger said. “We still did everything the same but that’s when we started having waitresses because it was a lot bigger than before.”
After “a year or two,” Dean wanted a sports bar, and a wall was knocked down to expand the restaurant into the space next door. Then, Ginger said, it was “big enough” to get a liquor license and host live entertainment.
“That’s when people like Ken (Block) and Andrew (Copeland) of Sister Hazel began playing there all the time,” Ginger said. “During the day they would cut grass, our grass even, and at night they would sing and now they’re famous (smiles).”
Fried foods like chicken wings “for the pub” and an oyster bar were added to the offerings as well. As the menu grew, so did business – and the need for an even larger space.
The landlord of that building also owned the building “at the top of the hill” that housed a Chinese restaurant. After some negotiating, the Nappys decided to buy, not rent.
The notion sounded risky to some“My first phone call was to a builder and he asked me if I was crazy,” Ginger said. “My second call was to my attorney and he asked me the same question (laughs). So, I said to my husband, ‘Are we nuts?’
“But the nice thing is that now that we owned it, we were able to do whatever we wanted to do with it.”
Whatever they wanted meant “completely gutting” the building to create private dining rooms and an outdoor patio. If it wasn’t already, the move solidified Napolitano’s as one of Gainesville’s top restaurants. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who won a Heisman Trophy as a player and a National Championship as a coach at UF, still calls Napolatano’s his favorite restaurant. His wife, Jerri Spurrier, wrote Ginger an inspiring letter that “could make you cry” after the restaurant was destroyed by fire in 2005.
The menu evolves regularly, with many specials added because a customer suggested it. Unlike a chain, Ginger can tweak any offering on the menu, even the pizza that helped make those early years so successful. Nowadays, she says the “trend” is for pizza with a thin crust, so instead of saying, ‘This is the way we make it, take it or leave it,’ Napolitano’s is happy to bake anything, anyway that pleases their loyal customers.
Napolitano’s chefs take pride in their craft. Jacob Riesch (12 years with Napolitano’s), Jim McLaughlin (26 years), Pat Durbin (18 years), Chris Durbin (nine years) and Cam Sabaghamirkhizi (three years) combine for nearly 70 years of experience at the restaurant.
Reisch, who’s named several of the offerings (like the “Walk About Salad” because he has to walk all about the kitchen for all of the ingredients), pointed out several ways why Napolitano’s food is better than other restaurants, pointing to items such as the fresh gulf grouper and clams from Cedar Key, the choice cuts of Angus steak and even the mozzarella sticks made from fresh mozzarella, not frozen. There are also the chicken wings, which arguably are the best in town.
“All of our chicken wings are cooked fresh to order unlike a lot of places that pre-cook them and then re-drop them for a quicker service time,” Reisch said. “Our chicken wings take 12 to 14 minutes to cook because they are cooked from the raw state, so they stay nice and juicy.”
All of the ingredients are fresh with produce coming from local growers and herbs picked from an on-site garden. Still, Reisch believes the main difference is in always finding a way to please customers, regardless of palate.
“If there is a special request, something that used to be on the menu, if I have all the ingredients we need to make it, then we’ll make it,” Reisch said. “We have a customer who comes in who wants three/quarters spicy and one-quarter teriyaki on their wings, and another who likes a honey mustard, barbecue garlic combo, and we’re happy to do that for them.”
Ginger wouldn’t have it any other way. Keeping customers happy is what keeps them coming back.
“There’s so much competition that if we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be here,” Ginger said. “I love seeing our customers. I really do, especially repeat customers.”
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.
And Ginger and Dean Nappy are always glad you came.