SANDPOINT — Valentine’s Day has always been closely associated with the saga of Ivano’s Ristorante.
It was on that romantic occasion 35 years ago that Jim and Pam Lippi opened their first location for the popular Italian restaurant in a small, white house on the corner of Second and Lake streets. Working in the cramped kitchen for customers packing the limited number of tables in the dining area, Jim brought family recipes from the Old Country to life.
Move the dial forward and much has changed: The location eventually changed to the current site at First and Pine; Jim passed away in May of 2016; and a new generation has taken up the standard to carry the Ivano’s legacy forward.
A mainstay in that effort is head chef Dustin Reichold, who could only shake his head at the notion of Ivano’s turning 35 this week.
“I’ve been here for 25 of it,” he said. “It’s hard to believe — time flies.”
Reichold clearly recalls his first couple of days of working under the watchful eye of his Italian employer, if only because he was quite certain he would be fired before the first week was up. The culprit — or the catalyst — was a large pot of minestrone soup gone awry.
“I hadn’t been there very long,” the chef said. “Jim was standing right next to me as I started moving the pot off the burner when it fell out of my hands, hit the floor and just exploded up in his face and all over him.
“He called me every name in the book,” he added, laughing as he shared the memory. “I thought I was going to be shown out the back door right then.”
Call it a cliché, but good Italians do tend to get mad at the drop of a hat and get over it just as quickly. Good thing, in Reichold’s case, as he went on to evolve from dishwasher to chef with Lippi leading the way the entire time.
Close to Jim’s passing, the torch was handed to Reichold and fellow longtime Ivano’s employee Nolan Smith, who also was part of an exploding food story that took place when, as a young teen employee, he stood on tip-toe to nudge a container of chocolate mousse from the top shelf of the restaurant refrigerator. Instead of gently landing in his grasp, the contents caught air and hit the floor, coating both Smith and an innocent waitress who had the bad timing of entering the kitchen at that very moment in sticky, sweet goo.
But where Reichold’s dishwasher’s dream was to someday work his way up to “the line” and become part of re-creating those tasty, Italian dishes in the kitchen, Smith’s first experience in staffing the dining area set him on a different course.
“The first time I got to be front-of-house, where all those high school girls were working, I thought, ‘I’m never going back to washing dishes again,’” he said.
They managed to realize those dreams, with Smith now in charge of the public side of the restaurant and Reichold captaining the kitchen — roles that were established when Jim pulled them aside to announce that he had a transition plan in mind.
“A year or two before he passed away, Jim sat down with the two of us and said he wanted to get out there and spend more time enjoying things like fishing,” said Reichold, adding that the paperwork for the transition was drawn up at the time. “We said, ‘You bet.’ But we had no idea what would happen just a couple of years later.”
Both men credit the Lippi family with building the foundation that has allowed them to keep the business in the growth mode. Beyond the training they received as employees, they fondly recall the friendship they had with Jim.
“We both have great fathers who are good role models,” said Smith. “But Jim was like a second dad — and amazing second dad.
“He had nicknames for everybody,” he continued. “I was never Nolan to him — I was always ‘Noley.’”
“And he called me either ‘Roscoe’ or ‘Rollo,’ because I was always eating Rollos,” said Reichold.
Following Jim’s death, they took the reins at the restaurant in conjunction with Jim and Pam’s daughter, Jessica Lippi, with each point of the owner-operator triangle tackling a different aspect of running the business. Today, Jessica is in charge of administration at Ivano’s. Along with her sister, Katie, she literally grew up in the restaurant.
Ivano’s, she shared, still resonates with her father’s memory, even when the doors haven’t yet opened for business and the tables are empty. And when the place fills up, her father’s spirit is most alive.
“Ivano’s has been like home to us and the staff and customers have been family for our entire life,” she said. “My Dad’s presence is still strong and can be felt within the walls of that building. It is the great staff, the wonderful customers and community who continually walk through the doors of Ivano’s that allow us to feel that presence and connection to him. I think he would be proud that his legacy lives on through the restaurant.”
Everyone involved in the Ivano’s story — including original partner Carl Agazzi, who now works as an employee and brings with him deep background in Lippi’s recipes and style of cooking — has positive memories of what they call “the old house” — that little restaurant just around the corner where it all started.
Pam Lippi continues to embrace the romance and the humor surrounding that initial night in business, which had two very different scenes going on in the front of house and back in the kitchen.
“We had a packed house and it was a great way to start out,” she said. “People at the tables were laughing and making toasts while, back in the tiny kitchen, pans were smoking, Jim’s apron literally caught fire at one point and emotions were flaring up, too.”
And 35 years down the road, she’s still pleased that her husband’s vision not only stood the test of time, but also proved some naysayers at the time completely wrong.
“On that first night — Valentine’s Day of 1984 — we heard that some of the guys in the bar of the Hydra Restaurant across the street were taking bets on how long we would last,” she said. “The longest bet was that we would be around for six weeks.”
Ivano’s Ristorante is located at 102 S. First Ave., in Sandpoint. In summer months, restaurant patrons can also enjoy dining at Ivano’s del Lago, located on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille at the Beyond Hope Resort.