Meatballs to Mozart – that more or less describes the journey of Dan Dalpra who owns the Italian Fisherman in Bemus Point. The Ohio native opened the restaurant in his wife’s hometown in 1982. He has since expanded multiple times, spurred development in Chautauqua County, and created the popular Bemus Bay Pops concert series.
As he celebrates 35 years in business, Dalpra, a licensed pilot, has no regrets about giving up his aviation career for a high-flying stunt in the restaurant business. And he has more plans in the works, including a creative effort to bring love to Chautauqua Lake.
Question: What do you think is extra special about the Italian Fisherman?
Dalpra: The fact that we have multiple restaurants in one - we have the main restaurant specializing in Italian food. The lower Watergrill has more lighter fare. The Fish Tank is an offshore, floating clam bar where boats can tie up. This year we opened up Lago di Vino, which is an Italian wine garden where you can sit, looking at the lake, and have light Italian street food out there.
Q: What have you learned after 35 years in the restaurant business?
A: I’m Italian and I love to eat so I thought, ‘how hard can that be?’ But it was quite an education. It’s a whole different world than having 15 or 20 relatives over to your house.
Q: Where do most of your customers come from?
A: Ohio, Pittsburgh, a lot more people taking day trips from Buffalo and the Southtowns. We’re coming to Canalside and they’re coming here. People want to get out of their backyards.
Q: You’ve also seen a lot of changes in Bemus Point. How has your restaurant evolved?
A: We stimulated the economy and expanded a lot of things and opened the doors for a lot of people and economic development. We employ 140 people. We are seasonal, but we are a major boon to the area. In 1982, fishermen were on the water, but I couldn’t get over the fact that there was none of this.
Q: Why don’t you stay open all year long?
A: We tried it a few times couldn’t make it work. We found out we could lose less money by being closed. It’s pretty intense when you get all your business over 110 days. That’s crazy. You have to gear up fast and hire seasonal people.
Q: Along with the restaurant, you developed a program that’s music to the ears of the community. Can you explain?
A: Bemus Bay Pops became a huge hit. It generates $12 or $14 million a year in economic development for the area. We set that up as not-for-profit and we do almost 50 shows a summer.
We bring the music to the people. It’s up close and personal and nice. People feel connected. We’re a restaurant, but we’ve really become a destination.
Q: What do you have planned for the future?
A: We are expanding Pops - it takes a great deal of time. Remember The Dating Game, the old TV show? We call it LOL - Love on the Lake. Dating starts Wednesday, July 19. You can find your love connection and win over $1,500 worth of prizes, including a flight over Chautauqua.
Q: All in all, after 35 years, how do you feel about the venture?
A: I’m very proud of it. We came during a time when the things we wanted to do weren’t accepted. There was no outside eating or decks and now there are decks everywhere you look. We’re a family-owned company and my family has worked hard with it and done a great job. We’re inspiring others to make investments and get involved. The brew pub across the street (EBC) and the condos wouldn’t have been built without us. We were the catalyst.