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Family cooks up a winner

One in an occasional series.

Most children call their mothers for cooking instructions. With the Pereiro family, it's the other way around.

Joyce and Julio Pereiro have owned Julio's Italian Restaurant, 8235 46th Ave. N, for nearly 15 years. To continually offer different and better dishes, they have visited every Italian restaurant in the area, and that includes Naples and Orlando. They have asked customers to do taste tests and rewarded them with free food.

And they have made long-distance calls to their son Michael, who is an executive chef. But the phone bill has been reduced considerably since Michael joined the family business.

Parents and son sit in the simple restaurant with scenes from ancient Rome painted on the walls. Huge pots of soups and sauces are simmering in the kitchen behind them, the aroma permeating the air.

Together they recount how this family business began with Mrs. Pereiro's father, the late Michael Force, who owned Damato's Italian Restaurant at 4125 Fourth St. N, the current location of Pepin's Restaurant. Damato's closed in 1975 and Force prevailed upon the Pereiros to leave Connecticut and come to St. Petersburg.

"He wanted us to start another restaurant. He said he'd hired a chef. I never dreamed it was me," Mrs. Pereiro said.

The couple started at their current location with virtually no experience but with two other family members _ their daughter, Julianne, and her former husband, Ralph Reyes. It started as a one-room restaurant with a second room devoted to a deli that served lunch and dinner. It has evolved into a two-room dinner-only restaurant.

The original hand-lettered orange menu with 12 entrees has expanded to a 42-entree menu. Many of the dishes make use of the Pereiro's family-style Italian "red sauce" dishes and Chef Michael's classic Italian dishes in a lighter style using fresh herbs and pesto.

Some of the most popular selections on the menu are fish, chicken and veal, with vegetarians giving rave notices to the vegetable lasagna and other meatless dishes.

"I did my homework," said Mrs. Pereiro. "I listened to people, I watched, I went to the best and the worst restaurants. A lot of my customers were great cooks and they have given me recipes so I have put their names on the menu."

It has paid off. Customers come back year after year.

"It's as fine an Italian restaurant as I know," said Dr. Sidney Grau, a regular customer. "We had guests from Providence with us this week, and they said the food at Julio's was comparable to or better than that of the restaurants in Rhode Island where they have a big Italian population."

Donna Nagelsen visits the restaurant about once a week. "We just love their food and it's a really warm friendly place," she said. "I can't say enough good about it. We recommend it to people all the time."

When Mrs. Pereiro became ill in 1981, her husband took over the cooking.

"He outcooks me now," she said good-naturedly.

As for the rest of the family, daughter Darlene Tottle waits tables and puts the menu together; son Stephen works in the kitchen on weekends; and daughter Julianne Reyes has her own cake catering business next door and bakes for the restaurant. And in a crunch, everybody pitches in.

Ralph Barese has worked for the family for three years. He has learned so much of the Pereiro technique that "people don't even know if we're away," said Mrs. Pereiro.

And the "icing on the cake," the Pereiros say, is Michael.

It might seem strange that Michael, who also does ice sculpturing, would give up work at top-notch restaurants and country clubs in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut to come here.

"We had moved nine times in seven years, which is what you do when you go up in the business," said the 35-year-old father of two. "With times the way they are, even some of these four-star restaurants where I worked were struggling, and here were Mom and Dad making it."

So a year ago, Michael and his family came down.

"At first, it was a little like having two generals trying to direct an army," said Michael, grinning. Although his father is a fine cook, it still was his mother who directed the kitchen while Mr. Pereiro took care of the cash register and kept the books.

"So I backed off," Mrs. Pereiro said.

Probably the key to success is that the family works together. Joyce and Julio Pereiro went to high school together in Bridgeport, Conn.

"I was a junior and he was a senior. He was captain of the football team and the basketball team. I was Miss Wallflower. I got him by deceit and trickery," she said, exhibiting the good-natured banter that exists among family members.

"We made it without a formal background, just common sense and hard work," Mrs. Pereiro said.

And now there is a fourth generation that's moving right into the business: Five grandchildren now hand out menus, clear tables and seat people.