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For 90 years, cooking aromas, clattering pots and pans, and cheerful voices have filled Lorenzo’s restaurant at the end of Riverside Road. Seated in the day’s fading light flowing through a front bay window, current owner Laurie McCollum pointed at a ceiling rafter overhead and just a few feet away — an original support beam for what began as a snack hut for a seasonal summer community. Just steps away are streets lined with lakeside cottages, most of them renovated into year-round residences.
Ms McCollum’s grandfather Louis Lorenzo had started the business in 1926. Again glancing at the original beam, she said the business was “a little stand,” where summer residents enjoyed Lake Zoar, which formed after the Stevenson Dam had gone in on the Housatonic River a few miles away, in 1919.
At the time, “people didn’t live here year-round,” she said. The restaurant would close from November through April.
Town Historian Dan Cruson said, “The dam went in, and Lake Zoar changed the dynamic of the shore and shortly after that the summer communities began to develop. The hot dog stand was seasonal because the community was seasonal during those years.” He vaguely recalls two other stands in the Riverside neighborhood “that didn’t really survive.”
Ms McCollum’s father and mother, Paul McCollum and Jean Lorenzo, took over the business in 1968 and ran it until 2013, which is when Ms McCollum picked up the reins, joined by her daughter Meriah Tani.
Lorenzo’s expanded to include the bar room in the 1930s. The room includes several round tables, and the bar looks in on the kitchen and pass-through for dinner orders. The dining room came about ten years later and includes larger tables and booths, the dark wood paneling and furniture offering a “rustic look,” Ms McCollum said.
She and her daughter were the only two inside the bar room on a late November afternoon before doors opened at 5 pm. The two spent that quiet time recalling the many years of business, customers, and family.
Customers And Family
“My grandfather was great,” Ms McCollum said. Back in the 1940s, “When the guys came home from war, they would all be here and he would give them all the beer they wanted.”
She has continued to treat customers like family. She is always inquiring of her customers about their families, their homes, and more, she said. Many of her regular customers grew up in town, she said.
She credits her customers for “keeping us going,” for 90 years. Word-of-mouth is the only advertising needed, she said. “The customers are unbelievable,” Ms McCollum said. “We had a great year.”
Open Wednesday through Saturday, serving food from 5 to 10 pm, and until 9 pm Sundays, the bar remains open later than the kitchen.
At 5 pm, they entertain an older crowd that “wants to eat,” after which a wave of families arrives. A later crowd is people who are out for a drink, Ms McCollum said.
Once people give the restaurant a chance, she said, “They walk in and are welcomed like family.”
“Customers are comfortable here,” Ms Tani said. She and her mother do their best to accommodate the customers. “If they say, ‘Add more beer,’ or ‘Add more appetizers,’ we do. It’s what people wanted and it’s what we did.”
Why did her grandfather start the business? “I don’t know,” Ms McCollum said. Why has she kept it going? “It’s fun, but a lot of work.”
One of Ms McCollum’s customers called her a wizard, with dinners coming from the kitchen; yet “they never see me. You know, if you’ve got a dinner cooking and you go away fro two minutes, and it could be ruined,” Ms McCollum said.
Like Ms McCollum who had “grown up in this business,” so did Ms Tani. Ms McCollum said, “I was about 6 years old and I would go to Bridgeport with my grandfather and shop.” She remembers buying meats, stopping at the baker’s and returning to Sandy Hook to prep. “We would make dough by hand; there were no machines.” Her involvement grew and she would start “helping here, helping there, and then I was suddenly doing it all.”
Ms Tani recalls also helping since she was young and “running around, putting out place mats,” or whatever needed to be done, she said.
“She did the same thing I did,” Ms McCollum said, beginning with shopping for supplies with her mother.
The family business has passed through several generations. Ms Tani is the generation to follow Ms McCollum. She is currently going to school for her master’s degree in forensics. Who will take over the business after Ms McCollum?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” she said.
A Time Capsule
Nothing other than an additional television and some photographs has changed since the expansions. The old floor boards are there, and a bar with roughly a dozen seats still welcomes regulars stepping in for dinner. The restaurant booths in the main dining room appear exactly as they do in Mr Cruson’s history books.
“Lorenzo’s is like a time capsule, it hasn’t changed,” Mr Cruson said.
Has Ms McCollum considered changing the restaurant?
“Nope,” she said. “It wouldn’t work, wouldn’t be the same. If it ain’t broke….” To modernize would make her restaurant “like everybody else.” Her father was also adamant about remaining the same.
“Dad never let me put pictures up,” Ms McCollum said, laughing a bit at the memory.
Ms Tani added, “It was his way or the highway.”
Ms McCollum did finally have the chance to add another television once she began running the business, she said.
“To update would be silly — it’s part of the charm.”
“It’s a time warp, but people come for the food,” Ms Tani said. Everything from sausages to sauces, pizzas, entrees, and appetizers is made in-house. “We make our own food and go to great lengths to make sure it’s quality.” See the full menu at lorenzos1926.com.
“It’s all made to order,” Ms McCollum added.
In The History Books
Lorenzo’s and Louis Lorenzo’s name appear in Newtown Remembered: An oral history of the 20th century edited by Andrea Zimmermann, Daniel Cruson, and Mary Maki, 2002. The oral history is told by Al Nichols (1911–2000), which included an account of one Board of Education member, John H. Keane, who had “owned some property on the Housatonic [River] near Lorenzo’s grill.”
In another series of oral histories edited by the same trio, Newtown Remembered: More stories of the 20th century, 2005, Lorenzo’s appears again. The reprinting an article that first appeared in The Newtown Bee on July 30, 1993, in an article written by Ms Zimmermann, was regarding the riverside community. A picture appears of “four generations in front of the family restaurant.” Louis Lorenzo, Rylan McCollum, Laurie McCollum holding her daughter Meriah, owner Paul McCollum, and Sally Lorenzo. The photo shows the family standing in front of the large bay window that appears the same as today.
Lorenzo’s is mentioned again in another past Bee article from 1997 about resident Al Penovi, stating that “Al and all his friends would fish in Lake Zoar for white and yellow perch and bass, and then stop by Lorenzo’s for a hot dog.” A photograph of Louis Lorenzo’s hot dog stand from 1926 also appears in this book.
A third book by the same editors, Newtown Remembered: Continuing stories of the 20th century, 2010, also includes an account from Ms McCollum. She is quoted there as saying, “We have the most wonderful customers ever. [They come for] the abuse. [Laughter] Putting all kidding aside, the food is excellent.” She speaks of her grandfather “Pap Lorenzo,” whose picture appears near a stove where he is preparing food. “I was very close to my grandfather.” She recounts going to bakeries with him “and getting fresh hot grinder rolls and coming home in the car and eating that hot bread.”
She said that her grandfather and all his siblings loved to cook. “All the recipes we use now are my grandfather’s recipes. The sauce, the dough, the meatballs.” She recalls being a child and working at the restaurant, as much of her family did. “I can remember carrying spaghetti. At the time when I was young the plates felt and looked like they were four feet wide … I remember carrying spaghetti and meatballs out to people. We still have the plates.”
She said that when Lorenzo’s started out as a hot dog stand, her grandfather sold “soda, frozen candy bars, and I think that was it.”
According to a footnote, Louis Lorenzo added pizza ovens in 1946, making Lorenzo’s the first pizza restaurant in the area, which was extremely busy. “It was the only place in town back then. I can remember being home, our house was across the way, and seeing a line out the door, just waiting to get in on Sundays.” In the book she speaks more about her grandfather opening the bar to those coming home from war in the 40s.
“When the guys came home he would open the bar and give them drinks until they couldn’t drink anymore. Whether they were of age or not, it didn’t matter to him. That’s how he felt.”
When her father and mother took over in 1968, “He brought in the steaks, the lasagna, many dinners.”
Pictures of the dining room reflect the very scene people will encounter when they enter Lorenzo’s today.
She also talks about her children, who would be next in line to run Lorenzo’s. Her son joined the Marines and “obviously is not going to do the restaurant,” and her daughter Meriah “has no desire.” Ms McCollum said, “I don’t know. I would hate to see it end, but I personally can’t do it.” She speaks of the many nights and weekends she has devoted to the business, often missing weddings or birthdays and other events “because everybody does everything on weekends … so, I did that the first half of my life and I am not so sure I want to do the second half. I don’t know what the answer is yet.”
Closed For The Winter
Ms McCollum also keeps that tradition of closing during the winter months. Lorenzo’s this year will close December 24 through March 22.
Although the restaurant is open only for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, “When we’re not open we’re prepping,” Ms McCollum said. It’s a tough business, taking up her nights and weekends, she said. Her daughter agrees.
“I was the only one who was late for the eighth grade dance,” Ms Tani said.
Having spent so much time and effort in the business, Ms McCollum said, “I wasn’t around 90 years ago, but I feel like I was.”