‘New life’ coming to former Stefano’s in Middletown: Meet Bandanas and its new owners

MIDDLETOWN — Steve O’Neil owned and operated Stefano’s Italian Cafe for 30 years before closing it last year.

New owners have been found and O’Neil is excited about the future of the Central Avenue restaurant.

“It’s great that new life can be brought into that place,” he said.

Melissa Kutzera and Monica Nenni, co-owners of West Central Wine on Central Avenue, are leasing the building that housed Stefano’s and are opening Bandanas Italian Eatery next month.

O’Neil said their proven experience in the bar business and work ethic they have shown at West Central Wine will “serve them well. They are a good tag team.”

Kutzera and Nenni understand the risks involved in opening a restaurant.

Around 60 percent of new restaurants fail within the first year and nearly 80 percent shutter before their fifth anniversary, according to the restaurant association. And they’re opening during the coronavirus pandemic, a time when other restaurants are closing.

“Crazy times make people do crazy things,” Nenni said when asked about opening this year.

When asked why they decided to expand their brand, Kutzera said: “It was the right fit for the right time."

Bandanas will offer some of the same Italian dishes that made Stefano’s so popular, Kutzera said. The menu will also include steaks, family favorites, desserts, a full bar and the “second best” wine list in the city, Kutzera said with a laugh.

It also will offer Schiavone’s spaghetti sauce that’s sold in stores. At one time in Middletown there were three family-owned Italian restaurants, Schiavone’s, Capozzi’s and Stefano’s.

Nenni said there is “immense pressure” opening a restaurant in the same building that housed Stefano’s since 1989. Customers will have high expectations, she said.

“We’re up to the challenge,” she said. “Since the bar business is so slow we needed something to keep us creative.”

Nenni said 10 jobs were created at the restaurant and the staff will include several of the employees from West Central Wine, located about one mile away.

Bandanas, 2200 Central Ave., will have a soft opening for invited guests Saturday, then open to the public Oct. 2. The restaurant will serve lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and dinner from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Stefano’s opened in 1989 and underwent renovations in 1993, 2001 and 2010. Those renovations increased seating capacity, including outdoor dining, and added a full-service bar and an old world brick oven from Italy.

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