One of Santa Barbara’s mainstay restaurants for more than 16 years, Palazzio seems likely to be around a while longer. Every year since opening in 1993, Palazzio has been a winner in The Independent‘s Best Of Santa Barbara Readers’ Poll, including Best Service, Best Caesar Salad, Best Italian, and Best See & Be Seen In Restaurant. Owner Ken Boxer is an unlikely restaurateur with a flair for staging and an eye for value. While other restaurants are struggling to find a foothold in the pre-stimulus economy, he’s sticking to what works: good food at good prices, Italian wine on the honor system, and award-winning team service.
It probably bodes well for the pasta business that when times get tough, people turn to comfort foods. Palazzio serves up some of the most comforting food in town, and lots of it. The restaurant’s official (and trademarked) motto is “People don’t leave here hungry.” Carb-therapy at Palazzio is served family-style, in huge portions along with all-you-can-eat garlic rolls that come warm from the kitchen every 10 or so minutes. A “full order” of pasta serves four generously. Boxer himself looks surprisingly fit, considering his restaurant has served more than one-and-a-half million pounds of pasta. According to Boxer, it’s not uncommon for 20 people to share just two orders of pasta, supplemented with lots and lots of garlic rolls. “It comes out to a little over $3 a person,” according to Boxer. “It’s the perceived value.”
Boxer was a communication student while at UCSB and perceptions mean a lot to him. Until four years ago, Boxer was the host of Around the Town Live, a half-hour public access show that ran for 18 years with more than 1,000 episodes. As both a TV host and a restaurant owner, Boxer has a unique perspective. “You wouldn’t believe the similarities between running a restaurant and producing a Broadway show,” said Boxer, who is passionate about the arts. He envisions his managers and cooks as directors, servers in the role of actors, and customers as the ultimate audience. It’s all about creating the right experience for the customer.
The restaurant is carefully staged, with pink neon lighting selected specifically because it is so flattering. Boxer also commissioned custom artwork for Palazzio’s high ceiling, making it the only restaurant in the U.S. with a replica of the Sistine Chapel fresco on the ceiling. The work received national news coverage (“It was on CNN,” Boxer said proudly). Texas artist Irene Roderick was commissioned to replicate Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Roderick spent eight months creating the 24×50-foot artwork on six canvas panels, which were then installed on Palazzio’s high ceiling.
Those who have been dining out in Santa Barbara since the ’90s may know about Palazzio’s relationship to two Santa Barbara classics: the Palace Grill and Pascucci. Boxer learned the restaurant biz on the job at the Palace Grill, where he started working to pay his tuition. He became general manager. His experience there was invaluable. “You’d be a fool to open a restaurant in Santa Barbara today,” said Boxer, “but if you’re considering it, make your mistakes on someone else’s payroll. There are more ways to lose money in the restaurant business than there are ways to make it.”
Though he never planned to open a restaurant, after five years, he found himself partnering with Palace owner Steven Sponder to open a new place: the Village Grill in Montecito. The Village Grill featured Caribbean food, which Montecito couldn’t seem to stomach. With help from Pascucci’s Laura Knight and the Palace’s Mike DeRousse, a new Italian menu was developed. Goodbye, Village Grill; hello, Palazzio! A star was born.
“On Palazzio’s first night, we had a line at the door,” said Boxer. Which is not to say there wasn’t a learning curve. “That night, a friend told me, ‘Chef Boyardee makes better pasta'”-clearly not the impression he was hoping for. The customers were shepherded out, rain checks in hand. The staff stayed up all night fine tuning in the kitchen. Noodles and noodles later, Boxer became the sole owner. In 2002, the Montecito location closed, eclipsed by State Street’s Palazzio, which opened in 1998.
The Palazzio menu features dishes named to honor Boxer’s parents: “Papa Ruby’s Rigatoni” (“his favorite,” said Boxer) and “Mama Pearl’s Spaghettini with Meatballs” (“tastes exactly like the kind she made”). It also features “Presidential Tiramisu,” which was served to President Ronald Reagan at his Los Angeles Presidential Office in 1994. Boxer got married three years ago, which inspired a more recent addition to the menu: “Daria’s Brandy Crme Br»lee.”
Boxer has never spent much on advertising. “I built my advertising into the food budget. Think leftovers-it’s built into the portion size. When people take home food, you know they’re going to be thinking about you the next time they open the refrigerator.” In fact, takeout and catering are areas where Palazzio is expanding right now. “Again, it’s the value,” Boxer shrugged. “You could have lunch for a week with a full order of pasta.”
“Value is important to us,” he said. “It’s important to our customers.”
Palazzio is located at 1026 State Street. Call 564-1985 or see palazzio.com.