Pignetti’s Waco will open downtown Monday
Clinton Harwell is bringing his number to Waco starting Monday, with the opening of his restaurant Pignetti’s Waco in the former downtown Phoenix Ballroom, where he will serve Italian cuisine, steaks and fine wines in a classic atmosphere.
Diners with window seats can watch or hear Union Pacific railroad cars rumble between courses. The 6,000+ square foot dining room is full of hardwoods, clinking wine glasses, and beautiful furniture tucked into the nooks and crannies. Pignetti’s, as fans of the Temple location know, has a substantial Italian menu. Harwell said the lasagna and meatball entrees represent signature dishes. Steaks will have pride of place in Waco.
Harwell, on a recent tour, said he hoped to make Pignetti’s Waco a standard bearer in the wine department, reflecting the reputation the name enjoys in Temple. To that end, Pignetti’s Waco will occasionally host special dinners at which it will feature a wine of the evening. Last Thursday, for example, Napa Valley’s David Arthur Winery took center stage at a $159-per-guest reception. The four-course meal included a strawberry and halloumi salad with a nectarine vinaigrette, glazed pork belly with late summer succotash, mushrooms stuffed with pine nuts and currants, and a tenderloin mignon sous vide with sun-dried cherry sauce and potato aligot.
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“You have to develop a relationship to get these wines, before they let you order,” Harwell said. “We hope to distinguish ourselves as a wine destination, in addition to offering delicious cuisine and good service.”
A great night out at Pignetti’s Waco will cost about $125 per couple, including dinner, appetizers, wine, tip and tax, said Donnie Johnson, who joined Harwell in the venture and will oversee operations. Johnson’s experience includes stints at fine dining establishments in Austin, an industry that has taken a lick during the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnson said his respect for Harwell, Pignetti and Waco’s booming culinary scene made the move easier.
Pignetti’s will accommodate over 200 people, including a private room and patio.
A year ago this month, Harwell confirmed it would be opening a second Pignetti store, this one about 30 miles down the road. He has a loyal following throughout central Texas, including Waco, so it only made sense to spread the love for Italian cuisine. He also couldn’t resist the nudges of Waco businessman Tom Wright, owner of Built Wright Construction and who visits Pignetti quite often to satisfy his cravings.
Baylor University Regent, Todd Patterson, a Houston patent attorney, and Wright now own the former Phoenix Ballroom building, having purchased it from longtime owner Leslie Henry. It was under his control that the space flourished as a venue for life’s grandest events, including weddings and balls. Henry remodeled the place, paying the utmost attention to HVAC systems and other basics while preserving the history and ambiance as much as possible.
“It’s got great bones. She’s done a great job with the renovation. It’s a beautiful building,” Johnson said, with the redesign creating space for a full bar and lounge that should encourage “good happy hours and adult time”.
Harwell said Pignetti’s Waco will market itself to the community as a dine-in destination before gradually adding lunch and brunch. The lunch menu will likely feature less expensive family-friendly dishes, including burgers. Pignetti will serve pizza when he can, Harwell said. The pizza oven has finally arrived, but the duct work is awaiting installation.
Harwell said labor, material and supply chain issues have taken their toll on its budget and schedule. He said Pignetti’s set-up costs now exceeded estimates by 30% to 40%, although he politely declined to say exactly how much the transformation had set him back. He said Wright’s involvement has proven invaluable in troubleshooting and navigating red tape.
“The job could have lasted another year without him,” Harwell said.
Waco real estate agent Clay Fuller was instrumental in setting up and starting Pignetti’s in Waco. He said during a tour last week that he was looking for a tenant or tenants to complete the gem that Pignetti represents.
Harwell said he sees Pignetti becoming a hotspot for downtown fine dining. He sees locals and tourists visiting Pignetti. Sports fans can choose the restaurant to celebrate or sympathize.
“We want to take care of everyone,” he said. “At Temple, I have parents of 7, 10, 12 year olds who ask where they would like to celebrate good grades in school, and they choose us. Thank them.”
Carla Pendergraft, who promotes tourism and markets the Waco Convention Center, said she would place Pignetti on the city’s tourism website at wacoheartoftexas.com.
“This allows conventioneers and visitors to see which restaurants are nearby and choose what suits their taste,” Pendergraft said. “Pignetti’s is truly an upscale dining experience, and those of us who have visited their Temple restaurant are looking forward to eating great Italian food closer to home.”
Fuller said he, his family and co-workers dined at Pignetti last week when the restaurant sought to resolve food preparation and customer service issues ahead of the official opening on Monday.
“Great atmosphere and great food,” Fuller said of her experience.
He said on-site parking for 100 vehicles is an advantage Pignetti can enjoy over other properties downtown, where spaces are tight.
Across town, at 6500 Woodway Drive, Di Campli’s Italian Ristorante is making waves on the food scene. Johnson de Pignetti said he visited Di Campli’s and was left impressed with the food and service. He had nothing negative to say.
“Waco is growing. There’s room for a lot of great restaurants,” Johnson said. “I think we can do well. Maybe better than anyone.”