Monday, June 17, 2024

Reality check inspires lifelong restaurant veteran to take leap owning first eatery

Ciana Ristorante Italiano opens Thursday on New Centre Drive. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON —  It was a rough 2022 for Lorraine Roderick, the owner of Ciana Ristorante Italiano, slated to open Thursday on New Centre Drive in the former Asian Noodle House space.

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At the start of the year, she was newly married to her partner of two decades and on a five-year retirement plan — her wife owned Any Lab Test Now, while Roderick worked in the restaurant industry. They were ready to enjoy a new chapter together.

But life changes were imminent. 

A month after getting married, as they were leaving for their honeymoon, Roderick’s wife had a stroke and was intubated for 30 days. Doctors performed a craniotomy.

After enduring many followup appointments, doctors found a second aneurysm on the left side of her wife’s brain and saw blood was “absorbing back into brain matter tissue,” Roderick explained. 

“And it had nothing to do with her stroke,” she said. “So the stroke saved her life — because the size of the aneurysm that she had, if it had blown, it would have taken her life.”

Doctors did a second craniotomy. By the end of 2022, Roderick said her wife spent more time in the hospital than out: “She finally got home the day before Thanksgiving.”

In the midst of being a caretaker last fall, and working a full-time job at Sweet n Savory Cafe, Roderick’s father posed a question to her: “Why are you killing yourself working for somebody else?”

She said her dad always pushed for her to open a restaurant, leaning on her knowledge from 30 years in the industry. Roderick worked for a corporate entity, American Blue Ribbon Hospitality, which owns the O’Charley’s brands, doing GM training, working multiple restaurants and closing them down for 20 years. 

“It was disheartening because everybody was a number,” she said, “but people have stories, lives, children, loved ones, accidents happen. And I was tired of being away from home — away from my spouse.”

So she came back to the independent restaurant scene. Prior to working in a corporation, Roderick valued her time at Giorgio’s Restaurant, open for 17 years in Monkey Junction. It closed in 2017.

“George, Nana, and Nick, the Lazaridis family, were the most amazing people that I had ever worked for,” Roderick remembered. “And, you know, having the opportunity to work side-by-side with a chef that graduated from CIA, and just with all the knowledge that they had, was probably the best six years of my life in this industry.”

So when she began thinking about her dad’s offer — to be a silent investor in her first restaurant — she knew she wanted a place that left the same impact on the community, employees and diners. She leaned back into her love for Italian cuisine and decided on Ciana Ristorante Italiano. 

“It translates from Italian to English to ‘God is gracious,’” she said, pointing to her life, a year-and-a-half after enduring one of the worst days.

Her wife is rebounding by leaps and bounds — beyond what doctors anticipated — learning to walk, communicate and do everyday tasks again, Roderick said. She even helped choose some of the decor for the restaurant, masked in light blues that represent everything from the Sicillian coast and burnt orange from the Tuscan villageside.

The dinner menu consists of around 35 dishes, including appetizers, salads, various pastas and chef’s specialties, such as scallops risotto or shrimp scampi. There are also flatbreads, sandwiches, omelets, antipastos and more for brunch and lunch.

Roderick devised the menu, everything made from scratch, with her chef de cuisine, Shinea Murphy — who goes by “Smurf.” Multiple sauces — bolognese, ragu, regular and spicy marinara — can be switched and swapped on various pastas, with added proteins and vegetables. 

“Our Alfredo is a little different than other people’s,” Roderick said. “I can’t tell you my secret ingredient, but it’s just a little creamier.”

The pasta eventually will be handmade, too, Roderick said.

She met Murphy at Sweet n Savory, though the chef has worked in other kitchens in town, including Fork n Cork. 

“I grew up in kitchens with my entire family,” Murphy wrote to Port City Daily. 

She said the “versatility and freedom” of cooking inspires her, especially with Italian cuisine. “You get to play with all types of proteins, herbs and spices. Italian cuisine does not limit one’s cooking skills. Also, on the personal side, spaghetti and meat sauce of any kind is my favorite food.”

As Roderick was unpacking boxes at the restaurant Wednesday afternoon, her manager, Judd Wood, approached with a taste of hazelnut-pecan vinaigrette to pair up with amaretto-poached pears.

“That’s delicious,” she offered. “If anything, maybe a touch more Kosher salt.”

Wood is her right-hand man, along with Jacqueline Hudson, Ciana’s other manager. They lead a team of up to a dozen people to oversee the 92-seat restaurant. 

“Just when you think you have everything, there’s 20 more things you need,” Roderick said, the clock ticking down ‘til opening. “This morning Judd came and put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘How do you expect me to flip a burger?’ I said, ‘Because I’m gonna go to Cape Fear Equipment and buy your spatula.’”

As last-minute needs are checked off, Roderick said the small stuff will work out as the restaurant finds it footing. It will be grounded in community giveback, she assured. The restaurant will be closed Sunday evenings and all day Mondays; she plans to partner with Purpose Church on free meals for community members.

“There’s a huge food desert in this town,” Roderick said. “Also once a month, on either a Sunday or Monday night, we’re going to have families that have signed up for a whole dining experience in our restaurant — and it’s not going to cost them a penny. It’s not going to cost the church a penny. We want to be community stewards.”

For families with kids 10 and under, Roderick plans to have free children’s meals daily from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

“I’m a firm believer that the decision for the average American family to dine out should never be based on the price of a kid’s meal,” she said.

Ciana Ristorante Italiano, 4724 New Centre Drive, Suite. 3, is open for lunch Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for brunch Friday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner is Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Menus can be accessed here.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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