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Macaroni's: They're not kids anymore

Dave and John Primavera had a dream for Steve Martorano's Italian restaurant in the Northeast.

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.

For many teenagers, the summer after high school graduation is a chance to take a few months off. Not for twin brothers Davide (Dave) and Gianni (John) Primavera. Instead of taking a vacation, the 19-year-old Northeast Philly natives pooled their money and bought a restaurant.

It turned out to be a solid decision, because 23 years later, Macaroni's is still alive and kicking. In fact, thanks to recent renovations that rebuilt the dining room and added a stand-alone enclosed lounge out back, they say business is better than ever.

A half-mile west of Roosevelt Boulevard in Bustleton, the restaurant was opened in 1986 as Steve's Kitchen, by Steve Martorano, the colorful chef who has built a collection of South Philly-meets-Godfather restaurants in Florida, Las Vegas, and at Harrah's in Atlantic City,.

After a year, Martorano changed the name to Macaroni's. It was a modest, 10-table BYOB, but the neighborhood folks liked his down-to-earth Italian cooking.

The Primavera brothers started working there during their freshman year in high school, Dave as a busboy and John - who had always loved cooking with his Italian mother - in the kitchen. They slowly moved up the ranks, forgoing summers at the Shore to work 40- and 50-hour weeks and learn the ins and outs. When Martorano announced that he was moving to Florida to start something new - the tiny Old Bustleton Avenue dining room could hardly contain his giant personality - the twins decided that they wanted to take over.

With their parents' house as collateral, they got a loan and pulled together their savings, and bought both the business and the land it sat on, officially closing the deal in 1993.

Despite the brothers' youth, nothing much changed. Clientele who were at first wary of the new owners soon realized that the Primavera boys were just as good - or better - at running the dining room, and just as skilled - or better - at executing in the kitchen. Three years later, the brothers' acquired a liquor license and added a small bar.

By 2011, Dave and John realized they had maxed out their business - they had lines every night and were always filled. If they wanted to grow, they'd have to do something major, so they did: They razed the restaurant and built a new one from the ground up.

When it reopened six months later, Macaroni's was much bigger - 120 seats versus 35 - but it still had the same staff, same menu and same warm hospitality. Crowds returned almost immediately, buoying the brothers and encouraging them to think even bigger.

In 2014, they cleaned up the lot behind the restaurant and - with the help of John's wife, architect Gosia Primavera - built a 2,200-square-foot courtyard with an enclosed bar. Dubbed P_Square Lounge, the space opened that fall and went on to be a hit last summer.

Leaning on the thick granite that tops the four-sided, copper-wrapped patio bar, Dave and John, now 42, reminisced about being younger than all their employees, battling through the blizzard of '93 and the serendipity of meeting your future wife because you hired her as a restaurant worker.

Was your family in the restaurant biz?

Both our parents were tailors. They came here in the '60s from Italy and worked for Wanamaker's and then Boyds. We got jobs at Macaroni's when we were 15 originally just because we wanted spending money. But during our senior year in high school, Steve [Martorano] decided he was leaving for Florida, and John turned to me and said, "You know, we could do this. Let's take this over!" At first I thought he was nuts. So after we graduated we talked to Steve and said, "What do you think about giving us an opportunity? Let's see if things could work out." And they did.

What was the arrangement?

We bought it, outright. We had always saved, and we went to our mother and father and asked if they could help; right away they said sure. The total cost was about $280,000. It took us 20 years to pay it off. Party of the arrangement was that Steve would stay around for a year while we ran the place, just to make sure we had it down, but after eight months we realized we were doing just fine, and he left.

Were all your employees older than you?

Yes, most of them. Although many of them were also young - at one time, I think none of us working here was over 25.

Did you make changes, once you had full control?

Slowly. We have a seasonal menu, so we started putting in our own touches each time the menu changed. Adding a little flair to the traditional dishes, modernizing them. And we switched to trying to go with all local produce and seafood. We had a motto: Never hold onto food. We would try to run out of things, '86' them, because that meant everything was fresh.

Did you stay busy?

There were times when it was very hard, at the beginning. The first winter, was the storm where we got three feet of snow. At one point we were closed for a whole week. Over that November we might have been open a total of 17 days, I think. So then we rebound a bit and then '96 comes, and that was the ice storms. It was rough, because back then we were living day-to-day, out of our pockets. Now we're a bit older and wiser.

And that year you added the bar?

That actually came about because we used to have a water ice window - it came with the business. Dave would come in every morning and make the water ice, then go home, shower and come back to run the dining room. It was great water ice - we never used any stabilizers, fresh flavors - and business was great during the summer. But then Rita's came into the area, and just killed it for us. So we said, what can we do with the space? We'll put a bar there.

Liquor licenses used to be easier to get?

Not so much easier, but cheaper, certainly. We got ours for around $16,000 - which, 20 years ago, was still a good chunk of money.

Why'd you decide to knock the place down and start over in 2011?

We did have the idea to expand earlier, because we saw that we couldn't grow the business without a bigger room. We had two-hours waits from Tuesday to Sunday. But we have a good friend who's like a financial adviser, and he saw the 2008 crash coming. He kept saying, "Don't do it, don't do it." Right around 2010 he finally says, "I see us getting out of this, so if you guys are still interested in expanding..." We said yeah, let's do it. It was a little nerve-wracking.

What was the worry?

We were completely closed for 6½ months. Zero money coming in. But the construction was done super fast. John's wife is the architect, she did the plans, and his father-in-law was the contractor. He brought his brother over from Poland just to work on this project.

Did you make a big reopening announcement?

Not really. Because too much business can hurt you. Everything was completely brand new, and much bigger, and we had to get used to it. At the old place, Dave actually went to every single table, with a small staff to back him up busing and running food. And John would have every single dish come in front of him before going out. Now, we have to delegate. But we have some great employees, and it works.

And now you've expanded again, with P_Square.

That was all because of John's wife, Gosia. He was sitting at home with her one day and she turned her computer screen around and said, "Look at this, we could put this out back." It looked incredible, and it was hard to imagine, because before you could hardly fit four cars out in this lot. But it worked.

How did you meet Gosia, John?

Here. I met her at the restaurant. We go to Italy every year, and we had a good friend there who said he wanted to move to the States, would we give him a job. Sure. His first day as a buser, we had just lost another staff member so I asked, kind of jokingly, if he knew anybody else looking for a job. He brought in Gosia, who had just moved here from Poland and was in his ESL class at Temple. Two years later, we started dating.

Plans for the future?

We're building a separate kitchen for out back, with a brick-oven for Neapolitan pizza, and we'll do a separate menu of small plates. It's really nice, all new equipment. In the old place, if it rained, the hood wouldn't work, and it would be 150 degrees in there. Now I always have air conditioners and heaters in our kitchens. Some of the guys that come aboard are like, I can't believe it's a perfect 73 degrees in here.


9315 Old Bustleton Ave., 215-464-3040

Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; Dinner: 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday.