On any given night at Procopio’s Italian restaurant, on Second Street, in Vincennes, patrons will undoubtedly receive a little touch of something they won’t get anywhere else in town. The proprietor, Procopio Palazzolo, loves to take breaks from his time in the kitchen to walk around his establishment, visiting with each table to make sure that everyone is enjoying their time there.
In a fast-paced business, like that of running a restaurant, it’s almost impossible for an owner to make time to be so personable with his guests. But that sense of the personal is one of the things the patrons enjoy the most about visiting Procopio’s. It’s also one of the strongest reasons that after over a decade of doing business in Vincennes, Procopio has been so successful, now to the point of having completed an expansion and move into a new location.
As Procopio, now in his mid-40s, recounted the tale of how he brought the cooking of his Sicilian heritage to a small town in the Midwest, he gave some of the details with somber recollection and others with a joviality known only to those who have tasted success.
It was 11 years ago that Procopio first moved his restaurant to Vincennes after a divorce left him without a business partner, or for that matter, a business to run. He and his ex-wife had opened up a restaurant in Lawrenceville, Illinois, and though it was successful, life changes forced him to leave it behind. Wanting to remain close to his son, who was still very young at the time of the divorce, Procopio decided to open his own restaurant across the Wabash River in Vincennes.
After leaving Lawrenceville, Procopio set up shop in a small building on Sixth Street.
“That first couple of years was tough,” he said in a Sicilian accent. “We constantly wondered, ‘Are we going to make it?’ But every day we stayed positive and we kept working at it.
“I counted every dollar back then. I still do, but we kept working and plugging away. Once we reached five years, we felt we had become a bit more stable.”
His traditional Sicilian cooking found an audience and after six years, he stopped wondering whether Procopio’s would fold. But as the crowds grew, the space on Sixth, while adequate for the time, was quickly proving to be a restraint on the demand for his cooking. On weekends, the line for a table was out the door and people were being told wait times would be close to an hour. With no waiting area, people were being turned away. Sometime around the 10th anniversary of the Sixth Street location, Procopio made up his mind to move his business again, this time into a larger space.
Finding a new home
After looking through about six buildings, Procopio found a 120-year-old building at the corner of Second and Broadway streets that seemed like it would be just about perfect — that is, after serious repairs and renovations. Somewhere during the course of its long history, the building had been the location of several bars. Most recently it was where Red’s Pub once stood. But even that was quite some time ago and the building sat unused for quite some time, falling into decay. Procopio said there were a few moments after seeing the condition of the building that he had second thoughts about the whole thing.
“The building was so bad. There were big holes in the floor and the second story was about to collapse onto the first. We had to place several steel beams to hold it up,” he said. “I had a few moments when I thought, ‘My god, it’s a money pit.’”
But Procopio and his business partner, and better half, Kristen Maeder, had resolved to turn the decrepit building into a well-groomed place for the community to gather. Along the way, every community organization and governmental body with which he had to cross paths to get the project going gave Procopio their blessing. The Redevelopment Commission, the Chamber of Commerce and the Urban Enterprise Association, which loaned $20,000 to Procopio toward the renovation, all voiced support.
The result is now a much larger restaurant that includes a large dining room, a wine bar and an overflow/private banquet room. The new doors opened in January and both Procopio and Kristen say the response has been better than they could have imagined.
“Everybody loves it,” Procopio said. “At first, I heard from some people, ‘Why do you want to do this? You have one of the best locations in the city on Sixth Street.’ But now we hear things like, ‘Wow, it feels like we’re in a big-city restaurant, like in Indy or Chicago.”
Since the new location is in downtown Vincennes, Procopio and Kristen say they feel invested in the health and revitalization of the area. Kristen points to things like the renovation of the Second Street corridor, eventual plans for a riverwalk and ongoing renovations of loft apartments on the upper floors of many of the historic buildings there as things that can only be good for all of the downtown businesses in the long run.
“You have to have a vision and look past the dirt and all of the things that we ripped out of here,” Kristen said.
Now that Procopio’s son, Alfonso, is older and about to head out to college, Procopio said he’s feeling a bit more at ease about a few things, at least. The size of his business, he said, is just perfect now. He worries that ambition could lead to getting too big and losing that personal touch with his customers that have built him such a solid foundation.
Still, Procopio does have want to expand on a few things. He’s started wine tastings at Procopio’s and hopes to do them regularly. He’s also toying with the idea of adding a grill in the kitchen to expand the menu to include things like steak. In the warm months, he hopes to plan a sort of mini street fair in conjunction with other downtown businesses, closing off Broadway Street to put out more tables and perhaps have some live music.
The accepted industry lore is that if a restaurant makes it past two years in operation, the chances it will succeed increase greatly. Procopio and Kristen have proven their model works. When asked whether Procopio’s will still be open in 50 years, the proprietor could only guess.
“I hope so. We’ll see how it goes from here,” he said.
By Rama Sobhani