Interview with Ross Morris
Conducted by Edward Manbeck
Piatto: Regional Italian Cuisine, Carlisle, Pa
November 15, 2007
This interview with Mr. Morris, the owner of Piatto, was conducted for the purpose of exploring the second of the two Italian restaurants located in downtown Carlisle. The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Mr. Ross Morris on November 15, 2007. The interview took place in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and was conducted by Edward Manbeck as part of an oral history research project for an American Studies class: “Workshop in Field Methods.”
Piatto has been a wonderful and unique addition to the downtown Carlisle community. What separates Piatto from many other Italian restaurants is the fact that, while it offers some traditional Italian-American entrees, based on Mr. Morris’ travels, he has been able to create a menu that offers real Italian entrees. In the following interview, it is evident that Mr. Morris’ exploration into Italian culture has fueled his determination to recreate Italy inside of his Carlisle Restaurant.
Mr. Manbeck: Alright, so if you could just give me a kind of overview of how you started Piatto and what your mindset was like to open specifically a more upscale Italian restaurant…
Mr. Morris: Sure, I’ve been here about ten years – this restaurant will be ten years in May – and, I basically wanted to do a restaurant; I looked around at the ideas that I could do, and what was not being represented, and thought Italian would be the way to go. One, I just really admire how they eat. I mean they eat a very healthful diet. It goes with the seasons, usually it’s locally purchased produce and food items, and we do that whenever we can. So those were all the attractions for me, and what we tried to do when we set out, what we wanted to do was just like Italy, and we’ve managed to pull it off to a large extent as time goes on. But, yes, before that I had a business, it was actually the first coffee shop in Carlisle. We did an espresso bar/café right beside the theater where Matty’s Kitchen is now located. So we were like the first espresso machine in Carlisle. For years, we had the only one, but now everybody’s in that game. But that’s where it all started.
Mr. Manbeck: You’ve seen that Starbucks is coming to town?
Mr. Morris: I did see that. Ah, mixed blessings, like I think, certainly your generation grew up with Starbucks, that’s pretty much all you know in the coffee world. Personally, what I think they’re selling is milk with burnt coffee flavor added. I have yet to find any of their products that I like. It’s all over roasted coffee in my opinion, like espresso’s about as dark as I like to go, French roast is fine if your in France and they’re making café L.A., it tastes great, believe me, but what Starbucks is doing is way off course. But I admire the culture that they’ve developed, and they certainly have a good business model. It’s one of the last good places to work in America, where you can actually go and get benefits. So there are parts of it that I like. I hope that Casa Mani and the Courthouse Commons can weather the addition.
Mr. Manbeck: Well Starbucks is going pretty close to them, right?
Mr. Morris: It’s right in the middle. I think they’ll [Casa Mani and Courthouse Commons] do okay. I’m a big believer in independence and I think they’re both strong enough. I think they have strong enough concepts in that enough people will support it, and at the same time, we might even get new people coming into the Starbucks, and then they’ll maybe branch out and maybe use all three, who knows. It’s going to be interesting.
Mr. Manbeck: I know one of the big things with the downtown is kind of how to merge the Dickinson community and the downtown. Like you said, there are a lot of mixed feelings about Starbucks coming but that may be one of the ways that that happens.
Mr. Morris: That’ll get you guys [Dickinson students] right down High Street. Yes, that’s true, that’s very true. And I think even in terms of retailing, that should be the next big step, is to get some good retailing going on where everybody’s interested again. When I came to the town, the downtown was pretty vibrant. It had a lot of stores, a lot of old school stores, but man, there were like people all over the place, all over the streets of Carlisle.
Mr. Manbeck: When did you come to Carlisle?
Mr. Morris: Like thirty years ago, ’77, right out of college.
Mr. Manbeck: Alright, so you feel as though you’ve found a niche here? You know, if you look at downtown, a lot of the stores have their own niche, and that’s how they make it in competing against the big stores.
Mr. Morris: True. You know, you figure that Wal-Mart and all those guys have big-boxed America to death, which basically put all the Mom and Pops out of business. So now the only way to do it is to come in and do something that those guys won’t touch, like my neighbors. I’ve got two of the best neighbors in terms of retail. They just have unique products that you’ll never see anywhere else, and that’s pretty much how you have to go, and even in a downtown, I think that’s the key. If you can come up with an idea, you know the Clothes Vine? I like going in, that’s a great store, it has a good feel, it’s got great products, and they’re doing it. I mean they’re working. So that’s the key. You have to find stuff that’s going to make the downtown come alive, and it’s there, it’s happening; it never goes as fast as you want, but it’s about ready to turn a big corner, I think.
Mr. Manbeck: Where do you see it headed?
Mr. Morris: Well, I think North Hanover is definitely the next neighborhood that’s going to pop. I think the opening of The Good Life Café and the shifting around of restaurants up there. The restaurants in Carlisle are always in evolution, I’ve seen so many come and go just in the time that I’ve been here, and I suppose that’s a good thing, but it keeps everybody on their toes. Where do I think it’s going? I really think this “High-I” project has potential to deliver on that promise of one day we’re going to make this downtown appealing. See the trick is to get people in. You already have the captive audience of Carlisle people and the college, you’ve got to make it a whole lot more exciting for you guys [Dickinson], because what reasons other than G-Man and maybe Market Cross?
Mr. Manbeck: Right, it seems like everything is basically closed after six or seven o’clock.
Mr. Morris: My daughter goes to school in Doylestown (Pa), up in Bucks County, north of Philly, and it’s just this funky little town. It’s like man, why isn’t Carlisle more like this? You go out at nine o’clock, come out of a restaurant, and all the stores are open. There’s a lot of music going on everywhere, and it’s like man, this is it. So, I think Carlisle is heading in that direction, but it’s just a question of how much time is it going to take.
Mr. Manbeck: But you see Carlisle becoming more representative of an atmosphere like Doylestown?
Mr. Morris: Yes, it’s heading there now. I’ve been here long enough to watch the whole thing up and down. When you hit bottom, it’s like there’s nowhere to go but up.
Mr. Manbeck: Now have there been any restaurants like this [Piatto], like a nicer Italian restaurant in town?
Mr. Morris: Not Italian, no. You were saying yesterday, I think your original idea was the Italian restaurant history in this town. As far as I know, the Rillos were the first family to come in and do that, and I think that was in the early sixties when they started. [ed’s note: Rillo’s is in Carlisle however it is not within the downtown area] And I think they [Rillo’s] were the first and the only to do Italian in this town but I’m not sure of that. You might want to check with the Historic Society on Pitt Street. They might be able to help you out with some details. It’s easier to trace the Greek stuff that’s happened in this town.
Mr. Manbeck: Like the Hamilton, Back Door, etc…
Mr. Morris: Yes, because they all came from one place. I don’t know if you know who Bill Castopolis (spelling) is, but he’s a pretty famous attorney in the area, and his family, it now has the North Hanover Grille, I can’t remember the name of the place. Anyhow, they sold hot dogs and you can trust every Greek restaurateur in Carlisle came through that place back in the day. So there’s a lot of Greeks doing that. But Italians, actually the only Italian-American [food] you could find in America until fairly recently was straight up Italian-American. You know, spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, they don’t serve that in Italy, you won’t find it. Last time I was at Rillo’s was a couple weeks ago, and I looked at the menu, and there’s not a single item on the menu that you could find in Italy. But I like Italian-American food, it’s good, it’s different. So that’s what they [Rillo’s] did. They made a name for themselves doing that. And actually, even when I came here thirty years ago, you had very little choices in restaurants. You had broiled seafood and steaks, and Rillo’s was doing this American Italian thing, and other than that, that was it. California Café was the first one that did anything different in this town. That was about, I guess about twenty years ago that Oliver opened up and he just threw something completely different in Carlisle, and I was like, “wow, this is cool.” And from there, everybody just started doing some different things.
Mr. Manbeck: Speaking of California Café, would you speak a little bit about what’s going on here on Pomfret Street, because it seems as though it’s got its own little niche.
Mr. Morris: Yep, it does, it’s cool. My neighbor, Pat Craig, is largely responsible for that. She’s the mistress of promotion. She knows how to get attention from anybody anywhere, and you should talk to her if you have time and you want to stretch this out a bit, but she’s a character. And, yes, she’s responsible for getting this whole block organized, and we actually have a non-profit group where we actually pool money and energy, and we advertise and market ourselves. I think North Hanover is doing something like it, too. Eventually, we’ll all sit down and get it together and say let’s do this for the whole town, but you’ve got to start tomorrow.
Mr. Manbeck: Do you think that the vision of all the business owners in town is pretty similar? As far as in the direction they want to go?
Mr. Morris: Yes, everybody wants to go in the same direction, and the people that are here, the players that are here now are all in a very cooperative mode. Like even my competitors, I know them all, and we like each other and we’ll send each other business. Nobody bad mouths anybody in town; its pretty cool, it’s actually like we’re all friendly competitors. You know, I love having the café down the street because we’re a small restaurant, we fill up, and you have to send them [patrons somewhere]. I don’t want to send them to a chain. That’s what’s really changed in the restaurant industry in America, in the last, I think it happened two summers ago, the chains took market share for the first time in the history of America. So, there are actually more people dining at chains than there are at independents. And they’re not serving real food. I have trouble eating at chains; I don’t feel well when I eat there. I haven’t had processed food in probably about twenty years, and any time I do, I just don’t feel right for a couple of days. So, I’m not sure what they’re serving, but it’s not something they’re cooking. [Laughs]
Mr. Manbeck: How would you say, granted there’s not a restaurant like this right in this area, but how would you say the Applebee’s area and the Target shopping center, basically all the chains in the area, have affected the downtown area in general, not just Piatto, if at all?
Mr. Morris: My take on it is this. Twenty-five years ago Wal-Mart was talking about coming to Carlisle, so a group of concerned citizens got together and said no, we don’t want this, and they fought it.
Mr. Manbeck: This was twenty-five years ago, really?
Mr. Morris: Yes, and they fought it, and they actually kept them out. And I think they shot themselves in the foot because they [Wal-Mart] opened up in Mechanicsburg and everyone in Carlisle went to Mechanicsburg to shop at Wal-Mart, so all of the other money that they would have spent got spent in that area. Whereas, if they were smart, what they would have said was sure, put yourselves out here. But what I think is going to happen, I think in five years you’ll have Carlisle, which will be surrounded by these big box retailers, which is where America is, and it’s a fact of life, you need them, but in the end we’re going to have this funky little downtown that’s full of vibrant little shops that nobody else has. So we’re going to be surrounded by these big boxes and they are actually going to drive traffic in a way that no other small town could get traffic, that’s my theory, that’s what I would like to see. I think it’s heading there because already you can see there are people coming to Carlisle that might not have come before to shop at these stores and they either drive through the downtown, or by it, or they become aware of it, and the more we have to offer them, the more likely they might be to stop.
Mr. Manbeck: Before the interview we were talking about the car show and how they offer these shuttles that now mostly take the people from the fairgrounds to the Wal-Mart shopping center, essentially bypassing the downtown. As an example, I know that Matty from Matty’s Kitchen said that he doesn’t see any increase in business when the car show is in town. Now maybe his situation is a bit unique considering he’s normally only open for lunch, but what are your thoughts on the impact of the car show?
Mr. Morris: They’ve tried over the years, they’ve tried doing some downtown, but honestly, what is there downtown to offer these people to do? And, there’s a couple stores, but it’s not like taking them to one of the malls where they’ve got hours to kill. Car shows used to be really bad in that either the locals would either leave town or stay home because they knew the town was flooded with a couple hundred thousand people and it would actually put business down. It’s actually gotten better over the years. They’ve learned to manage the traffic really well and we benefit mostly from the specialty, like the niche shows, like the corvette show and the ones where people obviously have money to blow, not like the Chrysler show or the big ones where it’s just a big junkyard out there. Have you ever been to a car show?
Mr. Manbeck: A few small ones with my Dad, but nothing like the ones out here.
Mr. Morris: [laughs] They’re pretty cool. You should check it out sometime. There’s nothing like it anywhere in America like them probably. But again, I think you have to give people a reason to want to come downtown. I don’t know how much you’re aware of the D.I.D. thing, the Downtown Investment District, that’s being floated before borough council. They’re talking about raising money to actually promote the downtown. It’s going to mean everybody chipping in, but towns like West Chester and State College have done it, Frederick, Maryland, and they’ve all done it very successfully, but it’s a matter of stepping up to the plate and coughing up the money.
Mr. Manbeck: Now is that just money from business owners?
Mr. Morris: And residential. It all depends, it’s based on location. If you’re like a landlord downtown and you have properties downtown, you’re going to have to kick in some extra money, but that’s going to be interesting to see. What year are you?
Mr. Manbeck: A senior.
Mr. Morris: Okay, you won’t see it. [laughs] But it’ll happen sometime in the next two years.
Mr. Manbeck: I’ll be back for alumni weekend.
Mr. Morris: There you go. You might see it, and actually, yes, if you come back a year at a time you’ll probably see the downtown grow in bits and pieces here and there.
Mr. Manbeck: Right now Subway is really the only chain in the downtown, do you think that Starbucks coming to the downtown will lure more chains?
Mr. Morris: Most chains won’t touch a downtown. It’s a good question, I haven’t seen much of it. Usually downtowns are left to the independents, a lot of time there just isn’t enough space for a chain to come downtown. Although as the economy shrinks, they’ll build smaller footprint stores. That might happen. I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. The economy is getting really weird and everything could shake out. Like you mentioned Applebee’s, that segment is really hurting right now; they’re having one of their worst years. That whole market segment, I think they’ve crowded themselves out a good bit. Their clientele is right in that middle ground, and as soon as the economy goes south, they trade down; they’ll actually go to a quick serve [fast food restaurant] as opposed to staying at an Applebee’s [slightly more expensive compared to fast food]. So, it’ll be interesting to watch. There’s a whole lot that’s going to shake out next year. Hope I’m still here to talk about it. [laughs]
Mr. Manbeck: Alright, say a new business is going to start up in downtown Carlisle, how conscious would you say they are of catering not only to the Carlisle community and the surrounding area, but also the Dickinson community, basically catering to both demographics?
Mr. Morris: Well if they’re smart, they will definitely be aware. Because the thing that makes this town work is all of those groups you just described. You couldn’t do it without the college, the war college, without the law school. That’s part of what makes it demographically interesting, and yes, you have to appeal, you don’t want to alienate any of those guys. It’s like being a politician, everybody’s like, well, put up the political signs. But for why, do you want me to piss off the other guy? You know, the other half of people who don’t agree with that guy. No way.
Mr. Manbeck: Alright I don’t want to take too much more of your time, but do you have any final thoughts on the downtown and the direction you see it heading?
Mr. Morris: Well it’s definitely on the way up, and now it’s just a question of how many people are going to get on board. Because it’s going to take a lot of ground roots effort to make this whole thing fly. It’s going to take a lot of work, but it’s headed there, we’re getting there. How about you? What’s next for you?
Mr. Manbeck: What’s next for me? Well I’m really not sure yet. I’m looking into spending a year in London which could be a great experience.
Mr. Morris: Okay, that’s a cool town.
Mr. Manbeck: Yeah. [laughs] You ever been there?
Mr. Morris: Yes, I was there this summer. I just stopped over; I was there for forty-eight hours. I swear to God I did everything there was to do in London in forty-eight hours. I was coming off of a trip from Italy and just had a layover, and I just thought, you know, I had no expectations, but man, London blew me away. That was surprising, that might be the best city on the planet.
Mr. Manbeck: So expensive though.
Mr. Morris: It is, what is it, like two to one now? Well more than that.
Mr. Manbeck: I think its forty-two cents to the pound.
Mr. Morris: That’s bad; it was fifty cents when I was there.
Mr. Manbeck: I was over there about two and a half years ago; the basketball team took a trip to Ireland, Wales, and England. We did London for two days and did the boat tour, Buckingham Palace, etc., did the whole deal.
Mr. Morris: Where did you stay in London?
Mr. Manbeck: I really can’t remember.
Mr. Morris: You weren’t at the Erring (spelling) House were you?
Mr. Manbeck: No.
Mr. Morris: There’s a Dickinson connection because Dickinson does that summer program over there and I just happened to run into a bunch of those people, so that was pretty wild.
Mr. Manbeck: That’s pretty neat. I’m thinking of applying to a program that offers a twelve month internship with a number of the big world banks. They provide housing and everything, so it’s pretty cool.
Mr. Morris: Man, all banking is going to be world banking before long. They’ll have to be.
Mr. Manbeck: So just one more final thought. You see Piatto doing well for a long time here?
Mr. Morris: I do, if you look at my history, I’ve been at this nineteen years, and my graph looks like this [shows a gradual incline], it’s just a nice steady incline. You know, a lot of restaurants do this thing [shows a jagged graph with highs and lows], and I haven’t done any of that. It’s just nice steady growth, very controlled. It’s good being small. I can control a lot of details that a lot of big places can’t. Hey, it’s been a good ride, and I’m a young guy, I’m only fifty-something, so I’ll be doing this at least another twenty years. I mean, I can’t imagine stopping.
Mr. Manbeck: Have you been pleased with how you’ve done here [Piatto]? Because this is certainly different than a coffee house, so was this a challenge for you, to go from a coffeehouse to an upscale Italian Restaurant?
Mr. Morris: Yes, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, just because, well it goes like this. It’s the simplest cuisine I’ve ever done, but it’s the hardest because there are only two things you’re working with. Your working with the ingredient and the technique, and you can’t falter on either one; they both have to be flawless. So you have to buy the best stuff you can find and you have to know exactly how to prepare it. So the people that cook here actually have a lot of experience and know what they’re doing, you have to. Unlike a chain where you throw it into the fire or the microwave and say, “hey look what I made.”
Mr. Manbeck: I usually get the lobster ravioli when I’m here.
Mr. Morris: Oh that stuff is great isn’t it.
Mr. Manbeck: How would you describe your clientele?
Mr. Morris: All over the board. The people that seem to appreciate us most are people like yourself that have traveled the world, people that know the difference between mediocre and good food. And Italians are incredibly impressed with this. I never understood this, like Italians come to Carlisle and they bring them here, and it’s like man, if I was in Italy, I’d be wanting to eat Italian food, not American food. And they say, you don’t understand. The person I traveled with this summer finally made me see what it is. They know they have the best food. It’s not an egotistical thing, either; they just know that their food is that good. So when they go anywhere, they want to eat their food. It’s really strange because in Italy you don’t see foreign restaurants, there’s not American restaurants or Chinese restaurants. It’s pretty hard to find anything other than Italian food. There’s basically Italian food and tourist food and that’s the difference.
Mr. Manbeck: You’ve been there recently?
Mr. Morris: I was over there for two weeks this summer and it was absolutely wonderful. They’re eating very, very well. The markets are amazing. About half the time I would taste dishes I had never tasted before I made here and I would just be like, yes, I nailed that, that’s good. And then the other times I would be like, okay, I need to change this, this, and this and I’ve got it.
Mr. Manbeck: So you’ve brought Italy firsthand back to Carlisle
Mr. Morris: Oh yes, yes, the food’s never been better, than it is right now at this restaurant. (laughs)
Mr. Manbeck: So it’s only going to get better?
Mr. Morris: Yep, it’s only going to get better, so I figure I’ve got a few more trips to go and we’ll have it down.
Mr. Manbeck: Alright, well this has been great, thank you very much for your time and insight and I wish you the best.