As Julia Child famously said, “People who love to eat are always the best people.”
Lisa Caruccio fits perfectly into that “best people” category, and even better, she is sharing her love of food and the culinary arts in a big way on Mercer Island.
In partnership with her husband Rino Caruccio, Lisa is opening a new culinary event center, aptly named “Caruccio’s,” in downtown Mercer Island. It will be located in the Aviara building, in retail space next to The Dailey Method and The Islander, with an anticipated opening in August 2017.
“The mission of Caruccio’s is to bring people together through culinary events,” Lisa said. She envisions that Caruccio’s will serve as a venue for private events, kitchen rentals, chef demonstrations, cooking classes, restaurant pop-ups, food and film nights, and more.
“We have so much talent here,” she said. “I’ve met wonderful cooks, specializing in different cuisines from around the world. I would love to celebrate the culinary arts in this community by showcasing all these amazing people.”
The venue, vibe & vision
Caruccio’s will be located in the north corner retail space of the Aviara building and will be two levels with a full-demonstration kitchen as the centerpiece of the space.
The main level is approximately 1800 square feet and will include seating for up to 40 people (standing room for 80) and a wall-mounted flat screen for film nights or for projecting in chefs to provide demonstrations from remote locations.
The upper level mezzanine is approximately 440 square feet, and is intended for more intimate gatherings and business meetings. It will have a single, large round table and a fireplace.
“It’s going to have a different vibe,” Lisa said. “It will be really inviting and not too formal. I want people to feel welcomed to come on in.”
Suzanne Zahr, whose gallery is also located in the Aviara building just a few doors away, is the architect and general contractor for the event space. She also leads a team of consultants in developing Caruccio’s brand identity and marketing strategies.
“Since first meeting Lisa I was inspired by her passion for cultural expression through food and community gatherings,” Suzanne shared in an email. “I was immediately smitten with her business concept to bring the warmth of her family’s kitchen to our town center for all to share. Her personal touch can be seen in every detail of design and brand identity, as if an extension of herself.”
During the early schematic design exploration, Lisa and Suzanne quickly landed on the importance for Caruccio’s to offer a ‘hearth’ to gather around. This will be architecturally expressed in the warm glow of a tall cylinder, located above the cooktops of the demonstration kitchen and integrated with the fireplace on the mezzanine.
“This flexible, versatile venue will offer a sense of community, nostalgia, and memory making through its elegant but approachable finishes, lighting, and furnishings,” Suzanne shared. “Caruccio’s is designed to be a place to ‘Learn. Mingle. Share.’”
Caruccio’s – generations in the making
Lisa’s culinary passion dates back to her childhood, when as a young girl, she followed her grandfather, Selo Pini or “nonno,” around the kitchen, hanging on to him by his apron strings.
Pini trained as a chef in Bologna, Italy, before immigrating to the United States. He worked in colleges and restaurants in Boston and then purchased a former residence of Helen Keller and turned it into a thriving restaurant and inn, called “The Pini Townhouse.” His reputation grew, and he was called to cook at the White House, serving Presidents William Taft and Calvin Coolidge.
He also welcomed Lisa as a helper in the kitchen and taught her to make his recipes. She shared the following account of him teaching her the secret to his delicious golden-yellow chicken noodle soup:
One day, I was still very young, he was in the kitchen very early in the morning, like usual, with his whites on (his apron and chef hat) … I started helping him. He told me that since I was such a good helper, he wanted to share one very special chef secret of his with me on how to make his famous chicken noodle soup so rich and golden. I hit the jackpot! I couldn’t wait to hear. So I got up on a chair and pulled it close so that I could see the pot of soup on the stovetop. He said, “Are you ready? I’m going to show you the secret now.” And he opened the cabinet door and pulled out some yellow food coloring and put a few drops in the pot of soup. He smiled his mischievous smile, and said “That’s the secret!”
Construction of Caruccio’s is already underway, and with such fond memories and appreciation of her grandfather, Lisa placed three of his signature recipes in the cement where her kitchen ranges will soon stand.
“I wanted to embed the recipes into the foundation of this place, because they are my foundation,” she said. “They’ll be right under the stove. They represent my grandfather there with me.”
While Lisa never trained as a chef herself, she is an accomplished cook, offering pasta-making classes from her home kitchen, “Cucina Caruccio.” She has a degree in hotel and restaurant management, and her former career spanned hotel and facilities management to event planning, and involved travel opportunities around the world.
As a manager at GE, she met her future husband, Rino, also a GE executive. Shortly after they married, he was offered a position in Florence, Italy, where they happily went. By that time, she was pregnant with twins boys and had left her career to focus on their family. They spent three years in Italy, before GE called again, and future transfers took them to Indiana (where their daughter was born), Singapore, Tokyo, and Pennsylvania – all two or three-year stints.
In each place abroad, Lisa immersed herself in the cuisine, taking cooking classes, exploring open outdoor markets, and of course, making incredible meals. She also frequently catered GE events for Rino’s team, doing all the cooking and event planning herself.
“What Lisa has done throughout that journey has always been to hone her craft, for example, taking Thai cooking classes, Japanese cooking classes, and master classes in pasta making,” Rino said. “The other side of it is all the gatherings that she has hosted. She creates not just a meal, but an experience – you know, when you walk in, and everyone gravitates toward the kitchen and has a wonderful time together.”
When Rino received a job offer at Amazon, the Caruccio family made another move – this time to Mercer Island, and they’ve been here for the past 10 years. She transformed her backyard, once consisting of an old swing set and wood chips, and put in a wood-fired pizza oven (before it became trendy!), a bocce ball court, and planted a chef’s herb garden as well as grape, fig, and lemon trees.
She has also continued her travels abroad and has taken cooking classes in Thailand, England, France, Sicily, Switzerland, Malaysia, and China. During every vacation at various hotels and restaurants, she always found herself in the kitchen with the chef and has enjoyed meeting Giada DeLaurentis, Michael Chiarello, Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman), The Lee Brothers, Tom Douglas, Georgeanne Brennan, and countless executive chefs and wine makers.
After attending a masters’ culinary training for fresh pasta-making in Italy in 2015, Lisa started teaching pasta-making classes out of her home and “Cucina Caruccio” was born. In 2015, her boys went off to college, and that year her mother was also declining due to terminal cancer.
At her hospital bed, Lisa told her mother how she went to Italy to study pasta making, and her mother responded, “Lisa, please keep going. You are on the right path.”
About a year later, with her mother gone, her kids off to college, and her popular pasta-making classes beginning to outgrow her kitchen, Lisa considered her next steps, knowing she wanted to focus on the culinary arts in an even bigger way. She drove past the corner retail spot at the Aviara building, saw the “For Lease” sign, and she knew that was the spot.
“You can’t help but change your perspective in life when you lose your mom and best friend. I decided to pursue my dream fully, with full belief and not hold back,” she shared. “Rino was so happy. And I know with all of my heart that my nonno and my mom are happy too.”
Caruccio’s website is coming soon at www.caruccios.com. Caruccio’s will be located at 2441 76th Ave SE, Suite 100, Mercer Island, WA.