MONROE, Conn. — Ownership of The Smithy, a popular restaurant on Main Street, changed hands this week. Maureen Hanley, vice president of commercial lending for the First Bank of Greenwich, bought the property and her fiancé, Ron Muizulis, is serving as the general manager.
The brown house and sign with a blacksmith logo at 171 Main St. used to be the Pelligra family home, before it was a restaurant for the past 46 years. It’s well known for its rustic atmosphere, steaks, chops and seafood — and the restaurant’s loyal patrons want to keep it that way.
“The first words out of people’s mouths are, ‘don’t change anything,’ even before congratulating us,” Hanley said with a chuckle during an interview at the restaurant Saturday.
“Our friends too,” Muizulis added with a smile.
Prior to the Easton couple, The Smithy was owned by Frank Pelligra and Steve Scinto for many years. When news of their retirement circulated in August, they had vowed to sell their restaurant to someone committed to keeping The Smithy going.
“This is a prime piece of real estate,” Hanley said. “This could have been sold to a developer. They could have sold it to a franchise. But they were committed to keeping it The Smithy and keeping the Pelligra family recipes and all the staff intact.”
“They went above and beyond to ease us into the transition and ensure its success,” Muizulis said.
The property transfer on file in the Town Clerk’s Office at Monroe Town Hall says Frank J. Pelligra and Dean V. Pelligra, trustees of the Joyce Pelligra Irrevocable Living Trust, sold the 171 Main St. property to The Smithy Holdings Group LLC for $750,000 on Feb. 25.
‘You’ve got to buy this place’
Hanley said she and Muizulis were driving to visit her father in the hospital in July when Muizulis was looking at the news feed on his phone.
“Ron said, ‘wow, The Smithy is for sale,'” Hanley recalled. “The Smithy has the best steak hands down — and beats out restaurants in New York City. After visiting my dad, we came home and I looked at the listing on LoopNet.”
Hanley called Kathleen Hock, her friend since the second grade, who has owned and operated T.K.’s American Cafe in Danbury with her husband, Tom Kennedy, for 30 years.
“I said, ‘do you think I could run a restaurant?'” Hanley said, adding her friend gave an enthusiastic yes. “That started it all off.”
“I think it’s fantastic,” Hock said in a telephone interview. “We have been discussing it with her since she started thinking about it.”
Hanley investigated the background of the Pelligra family and read close to 1,000 reviews about The Smithy on sites like TripAdvisor.
“I did a little spying,” Muizulis said with a grin. “I came at different times and did car counts.”
The couple also ate at the restaurant on a busy night. Hanley said she asked for the table by the fireplace, so she could hear conversations in the bar area and have a good view of the kitchen.
Hock and Kennedy also dined at The Smithy to give Hanley their expert opinions. “They said, ‘you’ve got to buy this place,'” Hanley recalled.
“We think it will be a wonderful opportunity for Maureen and Ron,” Hock said. “They have an excellent staff and the food’s phenomenal. The atmosphere is wonderful. It’s such a beautiful spot.”
On opening night, Hock had teriyaki salmon, French onion soup and visited the salad bar. “I love watching the open kitchen,” she said. “It makes for a very unique experience when you can watch someone cooking your food.”
Hock said she is proud of her friend and was impressed with how Hanley and Muizulis asked a lot of questions and were open to learning about the business. She said the change in ownership was a seamless process.
“They all have the customers’ best interests at heart,” Hock said. “I have all the confidence they’ll do so well there. The customers are gonna love Maureen. I wish her all the best. I love her dearly and the customers at The Smithy are in excellent hands.”
Hanley has 26 years experience in financial services and said she has worked with a “who’s who of restaurants,” though she cannot give out the names of her clients.
Muizulis, who grew up in Monroe, has a background in construction. “I probably built 150 commercial kitchens between diners, a lot of Krauszer’s and a few grocery stores in the state,” he said.
However, the couple does not have experience running the day-to-day operation of a restaurant and have relied on the veteran staff members of The Smithy as they learn.
“The staff here is amazing,” Hanley said. “We kept all 17 on. Quite honestly, we would not have bought it if the staff wasn’t committed to staying.”
“They’re rock stars,” Muizulis added. “They know this business.”
John Barnaby, the manager, and Michelle Moran, the staffing manager, are the main servers. “They’re fixtures here,” Muizulis said.
A minor facelift
Hanley said they and the previous owners agreed to honor gift certificates bought before the sale of the restaurant for one year.
“We’re going to post a sign, so people have time and aren’t rushed to use them,” Muizulis said.
Hanley said The Smithy will undergo a minor facelift with some fresh coats of paint, a little landscaping outside and new bamboo floors, because she said carpets can be a trip hazard.
“Someday, we want to make it more handicapped accessible,” she said of the building.
One thing Hanley and Muizulis have already done is bring in an electrician on Wednesday to make the dining room a little brighter.
“Our patrons appreciate it,” Hanley said. “In the 1,000 reviews I read, probably the only criticism I heard is it’s too dark and hard to read the menu, but people also love the ambiance.”
While the dinner menu will remain the same, Hanley said they are working with Veracious Brewing Company in Monroe to have a Smithy branded beer on tap.
For this year, Hanley said the hours will not change. But next year she plans to expand The Smithy’s hours for brunches and special events. The restaurant is currently open for dinner from 5 to 11 p.m. (the kitchen closes at 10). For its winter hours, there is a 4:30 p.m. start on Saturdays and Sundays.
Hanley and Muizulis said The Smithy is a family restaurant, but also a romantic place where couples had their anniversaries and first dates.
“I want to do a proposal package — creative things like that,” Hanley said. “‘Say I said yes at The Smithy.’ We can offer something like porterhouse for two with a special dessert and deliveries of the ring.”
Hanley and Muizulis do not recommend hiding an engagement ring in food or champagne.
“On special occasions, people migrate here,” Muizulis said.
Hanley said, “we sing ‘Happy Birthday’ every night.”
The tradition lives on
Hanley and Muizulis are striving to keep things the same at The Smithy for everyone, from the loyal patrons who live in town, to the couple from Brewster, N.Y., who tried The Smithy a few years ago and has been coming back for monthly steak dinners ever since.
Steve Scinto has been teaching Muizulis all of the recipes.
“We did the stuffed chicken and cod this morning,” Muizulis said.
“My son, R.J., he was even saying, ‘don’t change the recipe,'” Hanley said of the stuffed chicken with a chuckle.
Of Scinto and Pelligra, Hanley said, “they were here 27 years and I think it’s bittersweet for them. I saw sadness on Frank’s face. They were very passionate.”
Prior to the sale, many townspeople worried The Smithy would close.
“When a restaurant closes, it leaves a gap in the community,” Hanley said, adding of keeping The Smithy going, “we want to be part of this tradition.”