Walking along Victorian Square, a small sign out in front of the Blind Onion points upstairs to Pietro’s Famiglia, next to Sparks Museum. Arriving an hour before the restaurant opens, the sharply dressed Richie Ballerini is doing sound checks and owner Pietro Ochoa takes a moment from doing prep work in the kitchen to chat.
Ochoa started serving delectable Italian food out of the Pietro’s location in 2005 after working at a slew of restaurants and casinos all over Reno/Sparks. He’s originally from the Nayarit region of Mexico and moved up north with his cousin in the late 1970s.
“Reno was small back then, but there were a lot of casinos and action. There are still a lot of jobs and not enough people (to work them),” Ochoa says. He got a job at the Black Angus Steakhouse as a dishwasher and worked his way up, eventually opening his own seafood restaurant back in Mexico with some friends in 1985 when his father got ill.
When the partners decided to part ways, Ochoa came back to the Reno/Sparks area and started cooking at the Peppermill, the Nugget Resort Casino, Western Village and others making all kinds of food, but his favorite fare is Italian.
“I like the freshness and how everything is cooked by the order,” he says. Ochoa especially likes to make veal osso buco and accompanying sauces if he has the time. Years ago, Ochoa also owned an Italian restaurant in Reno with some fellow coworkers, but that was also a short-lived venture due to high rent and too many owners.
“The partners didn’t work out, so I knew I had to do something myself,” Ochoa says. Soon after, the opportunity came up to open a fine dining restaurant in Victorian Square and Ochoa took advantage of it.
“I saw the potential and it’s in a good area close to downtown,” he says. “The only thing is that we’re on the second floor, but people like to come in and discover it,” Ochoa adds.
Then in 2009, Italian native and former Las Vegas entertainer Richie Ballerini was celebrating a friend’s birthday at Pietro’s and ended up getting hired as the restaurant’s resident singer.
“I’ve been here ever since,” Ballerini says, performing at Pietro’s every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. There are a lot of regulars who come to see Ballerini sing and they tend to bring their kids, it likely becoming a family tradition.
“It’s the only place where you get to hear the old music,” Ballerini says, playing favorites from Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, and Dean Martin. Most requested songs tend to include “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” and “Mack the Knife”, but Ballerini is constantly adding new ones into his set and will switch it up in different seasons and around holidays. He also enjoys it when the audience makes requests and he can usually get the whole crowd singing in unison to “That’s Amore”.
“Most of our crowd is older and for them it’s a walk down memory lane,” Ballerini says. “A while ago an older couple came in- the man had served in WWII- and I played ‘Red Roses for a Blue Lady’ which was played at their wedding,” he adds. Ballerini has seen many proposals, wedding parties, and engagements happen at Pietro’s, adding to its romantic Italian allure.
“The biggest thing I enjoy (about singing at Pietro’s) is the memories it brings back for people,” he says. And even though he’s technically retired, Ballerini plans on staying at Pietro’s as long as Ochoa will have him.
Pietro’s Famiglia is open Tuesdays-Sundays, 5 p.m.-closing. For more information about the restaurant and Richie Ballerini, visit www.pietrosfamiglia.com.