by Nat Frothingham
As a boy growing up in Little Falls, New York, Carlo Rovetto remembers food — fresh food — at the center of family life. Talking about his mother’s cooking, he said, “We grew up in a culture where food was made from scratch and fresh. My mom had four or five spices. It was basic.”
At a very young age, Rovetto’s “Uncle John” started making pizza out of a bakery. This was just as pizza was rolling into America, just at the start of the pizza craze.
Uncle John decided to open his pizzeria in Mohawk, New York and Rovetto’s older brothers started working for him. Shortly thereafter his older brothers opened their own pizzeria in Little Falls.
“I grew up in it,” said Rovetto, about the pizza business. “I would sleep on a sack of flour. I would sweep the floors. I would help out.” Soon enough Rovetto was making and delivering pizza and spinning pizza dough in the air.
In the 1990s, Rovetto and his future wife, Melissa, both avid snowboarders, loaded up an old Chevy and headed out to Colorado where the mountains were higher and steeper, where snow was plentiful and where snowboarding was said to be phenomenal. They lived in Durango, Colorado for about a year. But Rovetto’s family ties were strong and he wanted to move back east. Vermont had mountains and snowboarding. “We loved Vermont. We loved snowboarding.”
Rovetto thought about opening a pizza shop in Vermont. “We started looking, looking, looking,” he said. Burlington was too expensive. He tried Waterbury. “We had a building there that didn’t quite work out.” At the time he was commuting from Little Falls to Vermont.
“I ended up finding an apartment in Plainfield at a place the locals called Heartbreak Hotel, a seven-or-eight unit apartment building.
Twenty thousand dollars — that’s the money that Rovetto had to put into his first pizza shop. He had looked at Burlington, tried Waterbury. Now he had an apartment in Plainfield and he liked what he saw there. The crowds at the River Run Restaurant suggested there were people around who liked good food. During the summer, a group of adults and kids would sit out on a low stone wall in front of a white church and enjoy their coffee. Plainfield Village had a local scene.
But there was something else that drew Rovetto to Plainfield — something about the river going through the town, the waterfall there. “It was beautiful,” said Rovetto.
So he made contact with Tim Roberts of Tim’s Convenience Store out on Route 2 who owned the big brick block in the center of Plainfield Village. “He told me what the rent was — $400.” Amazingly affordable. Roberts also took a close look at Rovetto’s plans for the business, plans he had developed when he was trying to get a building in Waterbury. “I was really prepared,” said Rovetto. “He (Roberts) saw my plans and said, ‘This kid is for real’.”
Next, Rovetto met with Plainfield officials to get his restaurant permit. The meeting lasted all of 10 minutes and Rovetto left — thinking — “This is the town we want to be in. I just felt so welcome there.”
Rovetto opened Positive Pie in Plainfield in 1999. Then, in 2005, he opened a second Positive Pie on State Street in Montpelier. The State Street location is at once a restaurant and a bar out front — and out back a place to quickly order a slice to eat on the spot or to order a pizza to take out. That’s what happens during the day. But at night, things change. Out front it’s still a dining experience with a bar. But as the evening progresses the restaurant becomes a night spot with entertainment — bands, stand-up acts, dancing.
Today, Rovetto owns and manages three locations: Positive Pie in Plainfield, Positive Pie in Montpelier and the former Black Door restaurant and bar (now La Puerta Negra) in Montpelier. The other Positive Pie restaurants — in Barre and Hardwick — are operated by RBI Restaurant Group. More about that later.
Starting and running these businesses hasn’t always been a piece of cake. “We’ve struggled. I’ve struggled. The first three or four winters were tough with very little revenue and losing dollars every week. It takes tenacity not to give up, to figure it out,” he said.
But things have smoothed out. Now, Rovetto is also involved with his brothers and a cousin in a larger enterprise. It all began with a Christmas dinner three or four years ago. Said Carlo, “We all own our own individual stores. But at Christmas dinner we said to each other, ‘Why don’t we work together?” That led to the forming the RBI Restaurant Group — a group of brothers including Carlo, Ed, Eduardo, Iggy and Giovanni — who own and manage 11 separate pizza-based eating places in Vermont and in the Saratoga and Lake George regions of New York State.
The RBI group decided to go forward with the Positive Pie name. We love the word ‘positive’ and ‘pie’ of course.”
Last year, Rovetto realized a long-held dream. He was able to free himself from his day-to-day responsibilities for the restaurants and spend seven months on a family visit to Sicily with his wife, Melissa, his son Paolo, 14, and his daughter Solena, 9.
As a boy, Carlo had visited Sicily. “I wanted to make sure that my kids had this experience with this culture,” he said.
He didn’t want his children to lose track of their Sicilian roots. He wanted them to know their cousins. He wanted them to know how to speak Italian. He wanted his children to see all this history, to see the churches, the medieval clock towers, the 2,000-year-old temples. He wanted them to see a culture where everyone — stonecutters, farmers, barbers, bread makers take pride in their work. “They master what they do. I wanted them to see that,” he said.
Try as he could, Rovetto couldn’t seem to break loose for the family visit to Sicily. “It took me 14 years to leave the restaurant business he had started. “We wanted to go five years ago,” Rovetto said. “We were never ready.” Then he thought, “We’re never going to be able to do this. We’ll always be busy.” So hard was it to pull away that Rovetto finally believed or made himself believe that taking the seven-month trip to Sicily was more important even than his businesses. “I had to put my foot down and say, ‘We’re going to go’.”
When he left, it was hardest on the people he left behind. But in Benjamin Draper, he had a director of operations he could trust. And the net effect was that his leaving actually empowered those who were left behind to run the business. It made them stronger.
During Rovetto’s interview with The Bridge, he sat upstairs at Puerto Negra in front of his laptop computer and he became almost lyrical as he brought up photographs on the screen from his visit to Sicily — photographs that showed pictures of daily life in his family’s village of San Giuseppe Jata, not far from Palermo.
In San Giuseppe Jato, at 7 a.m., comes the sound of a vendor loudly announcing himself in the narrow street. The bread vendor beeps his horn twice and cries out: “Pane.” Or the vegetable vendor, or dress vendor, or fruit vendor. “In the morning, it’s buzzing from the vendor’s yelling to the women who are raining down complaints about their husbands from the upstairs balconies.”
And the food: peaches, olives, fresh fish, ricotta cheese that’s still warm, bread that’s still hot. Women from an upstairs balcony sending down money in a basket and hoisting up a loaf or two of bread.
Rovetto wanted his children to see all that, wanted his children to join the family in harvesting olives. Wanted them to see other kids helping the family without being told to do it. “It’s just in the culture,” Rovetto said. “If there’s a meal to cook, the kids get up and do it. Someone says, ‘It’s time to clean the house.’ They start cleaning the house.”
Looking back on the years since he started Positive Pie in Plainfield, Rovetto said, “I’ve been in the community for about 18 years — I, my wife and my kids. We’ve worked hard to grow our business. We follow the trends. We try not to get stuck in any one place.
“The basic (pizza) recipe is a solid recipe,” he said. “There’s a magic in that recipe that’s hard to explain. We tried other products, this and that. We replaced the cheese. It didn’t have that magic. So we went back to the old recipe. The way everything mixes — it’s really good.