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Owner ready to return restaurant to previous glory

Those still mourning the loss of Claremont’s La Piccoletta, the beloved bite-sized ristorante nestled in an alley of the Claremont Village, can dry their tears. The doors have reopened, the pasta sauces are back and so is the woman preserving the restaurant’s famous saucey selections.

Karen Downtain has returned to the small alleyway eatery after leaving the establishment in 2011. She brings with her the cherished pasta sauce recipes passed down from generation to generation of restaurant owners.

Claremont’s oldest Italian restaurant remained in limbo for nearly half a year when Roger Llanes and  Camryn Zelinger assumed ownership from Ms. Downtain, then closed last summer. Dust gathered on the well-loved kitchen as the restaurant and its ownership remained in question.

With a sigh of relief from loyal customers, Ms. Downtain resumed ownership in October, returning to her calling as a restaurateur. And her first order of business was to return the establishment to its former glory.

“We have always said we don’t consider ourselves the owners of La Piccoletta, but we consider ourselves the caretakers,” Ms. Downtain said. “La Piccoletta has a rich legacy and we are just fortunate to be among those to take care of it.”

Changing the institution is what nearly caused La Piccoletta to close its doors after 30 years.With the ownership change had come a change in menu, and the sauces customers had come to expect had been taken off the list.

“The patrons are the ones that own the restaurant. If you do something to change what the patrons have come to love about a restaurant for 30 years, it’ll cost you,” Ms. Downtain’s husband Patrick noted. “You can add to it, and we have done that with our specials...but boy do [the patrons] want their sauces.”

The first order of business was digging up the recipes for the 12 original sauces that rotate on La Piccoletta’s menu every week. The week’s sauce selections and specials are posted on the restaurant’s website.

Ms. Downtain began by chance as the figurehead of the “Little Place in the Alley” in 2006, and by chance again she was given the opportunity to return. When chef Roger Llanes announced his decision to close up La Piccoletta, the Claremont resident figured she would sell the place to another interested bidder and effectively close the doors on her path as a restaurateur. The restaurant gods had a different plan.

“It just seemed like it was meant to be,” Ms. Downtain said, adding her belief that it was serendipitous she had never closed out her bank account for the restaurant.

Fate has always played a significant factor in Ms. Downtain’s life, particularly in her career in the restaurant business. Long before the Downtains became owners of La Piccoletta, they were regular patrons of the quaint Italian eatery, a favorite date-night spot and the place Ms. Downtain’s husband had his 25th birthday dinner. Her husband was at lunch with a fellow real estate associate in 2006 when she mentioned La Piccoletta was for sale.

“He called me right away,” Ms. Downtain remembered.

Going into the restaurant business, and owning an Italian establishment in particular, was well-suited for Ms. Downtain. Her grandparents owned an Italian eatery throughout her childhood and most of her family dabbles in the industry, including several relatives who own restaurants throughout Spain. She first went into business with her sister-in-law, co-owning an establishment in Upland. Her sister-in-law ran a breakfast and lunch service in the morning called Molly’s Souper. Ms. Downtain took over for dinner with “Gracie’s,” aptly named after the woman who gave Ms. Downtain her culinary spirit, her grandmother.

Though she has been a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to her career choices—working in real estate and at the local airport—her passion always remained as a foodie. While she admits her gift was not in the kitchen, she says her true joy lies in the front of the house, making her customers feel at home.

It is hard not to become like family when stepping into the box-like room that is La Piccoletta. The space itself is open- concept, resembling a small basement in Italy with the chefs cooking just across from the tabletops. The intimate size is both the restaurant’s biggest challenge and its greatest strength.

“The worst thing about this restaurant is it’s so small. The best thing about this restaurant is it’s so small,” Mr. Downtain laughed. “Once you can overcome that challenge of only having 30 seats, it’s the best environment you can have. Karen is great at figuring it all out.”

Because of the small space, Ms. Downtain has had to get seating arrangements down to a science, fitting each party into the puzzle of the floor plan. Though it sometimes means sitting parties together “family style” among the tables, it all lends itself to the magic of La Piccoletta. It’s not unlike crowding extra chairs for relatives and guests around the family dinner table, they say.

“The small space of ‘La Pic’ lends itself to establishing an intimate and enjoyable experience,” said Beth Hubbard, a regular who has been dining at La Piccoletta since the 1990s.

It isn’t just the pasta sauces that are drawing the crowds back in, Ms. Hubbard insists: “Karen and her staff embody a sense of community, and transform the evenings at La Piccoletta into time well spent with friends and good food,” she said. “Karen is a generous host and extends a warm welcome every time you walk through the door.”

Ms. Downtain doesn’t mind the masses. In fact, she revels in the crowds as more seats at her own family dinner table become empty with her children away at school. To make up for the absence of her children, Ms. Downtain began hosting “College Nights” on Thursdays, offering a discounted meal to students, professors and administrators, with an added bonus of free dessert for those who bring a friend. The deal extends to all college students, professors and administrators, not just those in Claremont.

She loves seeing familiar faces among the college crowd. One such face belongs to the first student she ever served at College Night, who has since earned his undergraduate degree but currently works as a basketball teacher at the colleges while he strives toward his master’s degree. Ms. Downtain has several such stories of customers who keep coming back.

A couple of students who used to frequent the restaurant returned last month to celebrate their engagement. They have since moved to Long Beach, but knew they had to make the drive to celebrate the occasion.

“These people are like my family,” Ms. Downtain said of her regulars.

Returning to her La Piccoletta family has not only fed her culinary spirit and the regard she holds for her customers, it has brought her healing. Ms. Downtain initially made the choice to leave La Piccoletta behind to care for her father, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Though he has since passed, returning to her beloved restaurant and reuniting with her cohorts and regulars has helped rejuvenate her soul. She is pleased fate has given her a second chance to return and looks forward to what life has in store for her next. For now, she plans to continue channeling her grandmother’s spirit.

“I’m embracing ‘Grace,’” Ms. Downtain smiled. “Something keeps bringing me back, so I’m going to keep at it. Until we find the next caretaker.”

La Piccoletta is located at 115 N. Indian Hill Blvd. or, as Ms. Downtain describes it, in the alleyway “behind The Press and Some Crust Bakery” in the Claremont Village.

Doors open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to “close” or whenever the restaurant starts slowing down. For more information or to make a reservation, call 624-1373 or visit www.lapiccoletta.com.

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com

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