Santa Cruz Good Times

Oct 07th
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Just Do It!

dining_diningFrom fried appetizers to fresh salads and giant burgers, Rocco's 503 is fresh

I have great respect for restaurateurs. It's a time-consuming profession, and in Santa Cruz, includes a seasonal risk. The odds of surviving a year in this business are small, but for Peter Rinaldi, owner of Rocco's 503, it was time to take the leap.

Rinaldi's Italian grandfather, and then his father, grew Brussels sprouts on the north coast. All of his cousins and their children still farm throughout the county.

"It just wasn't for me," Rinaldi says, "I always wanted to do something a little more social. I wanted to make my own path."

Rinaldi has been working in or managing restaurants since he was 23, and in March 2007 purchased Callahan's bar on Water Street.

"When the restaurant next door became available," Rinaldi says, "I thought it was a perfect opportunity to run a restaurant without having to run across town. If I didn't do it somebody else would have. I've always wanted to be able to facilitate food to my bar patrons."

In just two rent-free weeks, Rinaldi painted, decorated, added a draft beer system, and wired a high definition TV. This was easy, he says, compared to pulling together a menu and staff, but he couldn't afford to pay rent without customers.

Fortunately long-time local chef James Gorman was an occasional patron at Callahan's. He prepared an amazing New York steak with blue cheese au gratin potatoes for Rinaldi, and the chef was on board.

There were numerous reasons why Rinaldi should not have opened Rocco's, including his financial situation, the fact that October is the beginning of the slow season, and the circumstances under which the previous restaurant closed.

"For me the timing was wrong," Rinaldi remembered. "After you assess everything and have your page of pros and cons, it comes down to 'are you going to do this or not do this?' On the page of pros I had the experience and commitment to make it work."

Rinaldi works four service shifts at the restaurant to control costs, as well as cleaning, maintenance, accounting and ordering for both of his establishments.

"I'd love to have a bigger staff," Rinaldi laments," but I just can't afford it right now."

He delivered fliers to local businesses to lure lunchtime customers.

"Lunch has been picking up and I'm really proud of that," Rinaldi says. "I bought a business that was doing low lunch dollars, and I'm building it."

Besides the regular menu, lunch includes weekday pasta specials ($8.95). All of the pasta is freshly made by Santa Cruz Pasta Company. Available daily, the gourmet Burger and a Beer ($9.95) can be embellished with bacon, avocado and other tasty toppings.

Rinaldi is there to open the doors every day, keeping close watch on the pulse of his two businesses. After many straight months of work, he could finally escape for a snow day.

Rocco's 503, 503 Water St., Santa Cruz, 425-1213. Beer and wine. Serving lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. and dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 p.m. Visit

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