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Stefano Lombardo came to America from Carini, Sicily, at the age of 17 with just a few bucks in his pocket, a few words of English, and a burning heartfelt desire to make all of his dreams come true. Being no stranger to hard work, having worked with his lemon tree farmer father every day as a young boy, Lombardo found positions in various pizza shops soaking up all the knowledge he could while saving every penny.
After a few years, he was able to open his own on 2nd Avenue in West Bethlehem. That pizza shop dream grew into Stefano’s Modern Italian, an almost 7,000 sq. ft. space on Linden Street in Bethlehem. Lombardo had been living the American dream for nearly 40 years when COVID put a pin in it, forcing him to imagine a new future for his restaurant.
“COVID took us out. We lost our parties, all the buffets, and we don’t see the trend of a 200 capacity coming back,” Lombardo said. “Besides, there are no employees out there. We had 27, and we were down to three full-time and four part-time employees. It’s impossible to operate a restaurant that way.”
Between the loss in business due to COVID restrictions and rising property taxes, which would have gone up by another $5,000 a year when he was already paying $25,000, plus Bethlehem’s new stormwater tax for property owners— it was too much for Lombardo to continue as he had been. He and his wife Patricia decided to sell the property at 2970 Linden St. to SETNOM Enterprises LLC of Northampton. Under the agreement, Stefano’s will be demolished, along with an adjacent rental home. Lombardo will then build a new 2,400 sq. ft. restaurant on the property that will front Linden Street while the developers build a 61-unit, four-story apartment building in the rear.
“We met a lot of good people in that place. A lot of good history. My kids grew up in that place. It was a good run. Restaurants don’t usually last that long, and they shut down for other reasons than COVID,” Lombardo told What Now Philadelphia. “We didn’t shut down because we didn’t have any business. We shut down because of all the politics, all the sickness, and all the stuff that happened, and we just said, ‘Time Out. I’m taking time out, and when we’re in the right state of mind, we can do this again.'”
Stefano’s Modern Italian will open sometime at the end of 2022 or the beginning of 2013 at over half its original size. Lombard says the smaller restaurant will allow him to work with a smaller staff and be future-ready while serving the same delicious recipes, pizzas, and gelato on a scaled-down menu.
“We have a large fan club that can’t wait for us to reopen,” Lombardo said. “We’re on our third, almost fourth generation, there. When we opened up, we were serving parents with their children, and today we are serving the children of the children. It’s been a family affair, friends. A lot of friends.”
Lombardo is hoping that some of his old staff will be able to return, some of them who have been with him for 20 and 30 years.
“In my industry, that’s unheard of. Part of our success was the fact that we stayed consistent with employees and with the recipes. If you don’t change the employees, they don’t change the recipe you.”