Portofino Italian Ristorante near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge changes hands after 25 years

Published January 11 2018

ST. PETERSBURG ó After 25 years as proprietors of Portofino Italian Ristorante near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Anna and Michele Fischetti have put their cherished business in the care of another couple.

Chris and Patricia Conley have never owned a restaurant, but bring relevant experience and are being helped by the Fischettis during the transition. The new owners also will keep the traditional Italian menu and inherit the Fischettisí 10 or so employees.

Itís a bittersweet parting, said Anna Fischetti, 63, as she sat at one of Portofinoís white tablecloth tables before the arrival of that eveningís diners. She declined to reveal the sales price.

Located in the busy, newly renovated Bay Pointe Plaza at 5035 34th St. S, the restaurantís menu includes homemade minestrone, veal parmigiana, gnocchi and calamari marinara.

City Council member Steve Kornell knows the restaurant well.

"Itís really good, traditional Italian food," he said, adding that he appreciates and will miss the Fischettis, but welcomes Portofinoís new owners.

Michele Fischetti, 71, has always been in the restaurant business. Born in Naples, Italy, he moved with his parents to Argentina when he was 6. He moved to the United States in 1972 and met his wife, who is also Italian, in Brooklyn. They eloped. They had known each other for just a few hours.

"Itís one of those stories," Anna Fischetti said. "When they say love at first sight, it is true. Forty-three years, three boys and three grandchildren and, mind you, we work together and we havenít killed each other."

Michele has had a hand in 23 restaurants. Portofinoís, though, was special.

"He wanted to do something for me and the kids. And it became a success," his wife said. "Then the kids grew up and got married and they have children of their own. Itís just time. I want to spend time with my kids and my grandchildren."

Yet, selling the business that has been a part of their lives for a quarter-century has been difficult.

"Itís very emotional. My employees have been with me for 25 years," Anna Fischetti said.

"My clientele. My employees," her husband said, when asked what he would miss most.

For Chris Conley, who spent 10 years in the Navy and 22 years as an engineer in Silicon Valley, the decision to buy Portofinoís and move from California to St. Petersburg was easy. It was like coming home for the Gibbs High School graduate.

"When we found Portofinoís, we knew it was us,í he said, praising the Fischettis. "Theyíve set an amazing foundation. There isnít anyone who hasnít raved about them."

Conley, 51, said he plans to build on the what the couple has established. He will boost the restaurantís social media presence by developing a website and Facebook page. He hopes to hire more people. And, he said, "Weíre hoping to add delivery."

It helps that Portofinoís menu features the very cuisine that Conley grew up enjoying at home and the homes of his Boston relatives. "Both my wife and I are Irish-Italian," he said.

Buying the business was also motivated by the development thatís taking place in the Skyway Marina District that runs along 34th Street, from 30th to 54th avenues S, and serves neighborhoods such as Maximo Moorings, Broadwater, Pinellas Point and Lakewood Estates. Portofinoís is part of the growing district. And for Conley, who moved away during the 1980ís, returning to a thriving downtown has been inspiring.

The Conleysí two oldest children will be involved in the business. Zack, 23, who has a marketing degree, will be the restaurantís marketing director. Brittany, 19, a student at St. Leoís University, will work on social media. The youngest, Sophia,9, is moving from California with the family.

Anna Fischetti is ready to hand over Portofinoís to a new family. "Itís time for me," she said. "I hope they carry on the tradition. I really do."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.