Life

Old world charm downtown

The Paluzzi sisters -- Gina, Lisa and Carla -- love to cook. It's a passion they inherited from their Italian parents and grandparents whose kitchen was always the heart of their home.

In fact, on Gina's wedding day, mom Diane passed on to her daughter her treasured recipe book full of her own unique Italian recipes. It is a gift she cherishes to this day and it's a part of the girls' past that also helps define who and what they are today.

Last month, the sisters Paluzzi took their unique business venture to a whole new level when they opened the doors to Tre Sorelle (meaning, in Italian, Three Sisters), their new restaurant at 133 Mississaga St. E.

But Tre Sorelle is not new to Orillia.

Before they had an official name, the girls took their homemade pasta and sauces to Orillia's farmers' market, where they became a popular stop at the bustling outdoor square. They decided to take a leap of faith in November, 2004 and opened up in "a closet" across the street from their new location on the main street.

With their customers clamouring for more, they moved to a larger, 900-square-foot space on Peter Street South in 2006. They began to expand their take-out offerings -- but never wavered from their Italian-infused homemade recipes. As they attracted more and more young professionals and retirees, they began a unique service: people could bring in their own pans or dishes to be filled with Tre Sorelle's homemade goodness.

"That was and remains a very popular option," says Gina. "A lot of people are just too busy to cook but they can drop in here and choose from a whole range of food that they can bring home for their family. And it's all homemade."

In fact, despite now having a sizeable restaurant and offering a diverse lunch menu, the sisters refuse to cave into a fast-food mentality. If the slow food movement had a cheerleader in Orillia, it would be Tre Sorelle.

"We don't have commercial ovens," says Lisa. "We make it just as if we were at home and were making food for family. We don't believe in mass producing."

They also don't believe in using cheap ingredients. "My supplier has tried to get me to switch tomatoes," explains Lisa. "We've been using the same tomatoes -- the same tomatoes my mom used to use -- and we're not going to compromise just because they're a bit cheaper. We will never do that."

The sisters say they take their cues from their customers. "When we were on Peter Street, we had a few chairs there where people could wait if we were busy," says Gina. "Customers started suggesting we should add tables so they could eat there... but there just wasn't the room."

That's why they jumped at the opportunity to move into the former La Mezzaluna, which is almost triple the size of their former Peter Street location.

"It's scary because it's a pretty big move," says Lisa, noting they had to do extensive renovations, buy tables and chairs and myriad other items needed for a full-service restaurant. "But we knew that to grow, we would have to move and this is a great location."

In fact, the girls long pined for a return to the main drag. "You would be surprised but some people weren't sure where Peter Street was," said Gina. "We really wanted to be back on the main street. It's the centre of town, it's where everybody comes to shop; there's a lot of walking traffic and our visibility here is great. It was very important for us to be back on the main street."

And while the restaurant has only been open for a few weeks, it appears nobody is having trouble finding the new location.

"We've been full every day for lunch and the comments we've had have been fantastic," says Gina.

In fact, they face pressure to have longer hours -- and to stay open for dinner.

"To do things right, the way we want to -- to do everything home-made and authentic -- it takes a lot of preparation and time," says Lisa. "And we don't want to compromise on that just to stay open longer."

Just as important, the sisters continue to prepare dishes that customers can purchase for takeout to bring home to their families for dinner. "That's still a big part of our business," says Gina, noting their take-home dishes include everything from Panini sandwiches to various types of lasagna and fresh pastas to Italian sausage and meatballs.

In addition, the girls offer catering services and create gift baskets for various occasions.

While at least one of the sisters is always at the eatery, this restaurant is a family affair. The girls' parents are still very much involved with Mom, Diane, and Dad, Domenico, familiar faces at the downtown eatery, pitching in whenever a helping hand is needed. The girls' husbands and kids also help when needed.

"It's a family atmosphere," says Gina. "We say we offer old-world charm and we really do. It's a pretty unique place to come to visit, to eat and to look at the food we offer."

The sisters say they hope their downtown restaurant becomes a local landmark; they have no plans on going anywhere.

Gina was the first to come to Orillia, moving here 19 years ago when her husband, a teacher, got a job here. Soon after, her parents decided to come here as well, leaving their hometown of Sault Ste. Marie behind. Ten years later, Lisa, who had been managing a hair salon in Toronto, decided to move north as well.

Today, Gina, Lisa and Lisa's husband all work full-time at the restaurant. Carla continues to live and work with her husband in Toronto, but helps with marketing and website development.

"We love it here," says Gina. "What I like is it reminds me of home; I love the small-town feel. And it's central to Toronto and to the Soo. It's a great place to live and it's a great place to have a restaurant."

For more information on Tre Sorelle, which is open six days a week (closed Sundays), visit www.tresorelleorillia.com.



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