It's a ghost! Family-run Italian eatery the Florentine returns to life as a ghost kitchen

Andy Downing
adowning@columbusalive.com

After the Florentine closed in December 2016 following 71 years in business, Nick Penzone, part of the third generation in his family to own and operate the Franklinton institution, was determined to keep the Italian restaurant’s name alive. 

Beginning in the weeks immediately following the closure, Penzone started producing and jarring a line of pasta sauce under the Florentine name, which was carried early on in specialty shops like Weiland’s Market and has since expanded distribution to large grocery chains across Ohio but specifically focused on the Columbus and Cleveland regions. For a couple of years, this remained Penzone’s focus, which included making regular trips to a facility in Athens where he at first made the sauce himself, eventually outsourcing the task as production demands increased.

But after hearing news about the planned North Market at Bridge Park, Penzone and his wife, Gina, decided to draw up a business plan for a reborn Florentine, pitching it for one of the coming market’s food stalls. “And we made it to the final round but didn’t get in,” said Nick Penzone, who joined Gina for an early January phone interview. “But we had a business plan in place, and it woke us up to the fact that we really wanted to bring the restaurant back.”

“It’s one of those things that you don’t realize how much you love it until it’s gone, because it was always just kind of there,” Nick Penzone continued. “My dad would take us down there on Sundays when the restaurant was closed, and my brother and I would run around and eat candy and drink soda. Then I started working there when I was in seventh grade, and then summers in high school and off and on through college. … The Florentine helped define who I was growing up.”

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Initially, Nick and Gina started seeking out brick-and-mortar locations for a reborn Florentine, canvassing for a building that would offer an intimacy lacking in the previous, comparatively cavernous Franklinton space. Indeed, part of what drove the 2016 closure was the state of the building, which required extensive repairs, as well as the associated cost of the utilities required to heat and cool the space. Combined with weeknight lulls and weekend business that couldn’t quite cover the financial gap, the restaurant's closure started to become an inevitability. “It was one of those declining things where it became hard to stay afloat,” Nick Penzone said.

Before the married couple landed on a new location, however, the coronavirus pandemic hit, further complicating plans. Around this time, Nick Penzone recalled having read about ghost kitchens, facilities from which virtual brands produce food absent a storefront and solely for third-party delivery. He quickly scheduled a tour of a CloudKitchens site on Essex Avenue in Milo-Grogan and walked away impressed with both the potential and the lessened financial liability.

“When we saw this opportunity, we figured it was lower risk to open a kitchen space,” Nick Penzone said, citing the higher costs tied with operating a more-traditional brick-and-mortar. “The way life is right now, everyone is eating at home, so this seemed like a good transition phase for the restaurant.”

So far, business has exceeded the Penzones' initial expectations to the point where they are already developing plans to expand hours to include lunch, which will require hiring additional staff (at least two of the people currently assisting the couple used to work at the original Franklinton location). Longer term, the couple isn’t sure if it will revisit launching a new brick-and-mortar or simply expand on this current model.

“This could be a bridge to a second cloud kitchen, or it could be a bridge to a new sit-in. We’re not sure yet,” Gina Penzone said.

With the North Market at Bridge Park pitch, the Penzones envisioned dishing up modernized versions of Florentine favorites. But for the cloud kitchen, the two opted to stick with classic recipes, heavy on handmade pastas, homemade sauces and traditional presentations. “We favored tradition over newness, for now, because that’s what our customers wanted,” Gina Penzone said.

As a result, Nick Penzone said he’s been experiencing some serious and welcome deja vu in the weeks he’s been cooking at CloudKitchen, which has been operational since an early December soft opening.

“Being in this new space, it’s tiny, but when I get cooking, and when it’s busy, it feels like I’m back in the Florentine,” said Nick Penzone, who, aside from having to adjust to a new pasta maker, has experienced a smooth return to the kitchen. “You close your eyes and it’s all the same smells.”

Gina and Nick Penzone