YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — “I had decent knife skills when I was 6 years old,” says Pat Lavanty.
He’s talking about the chopping, carving, slicing and dicing that are among the fundamental tasks of a chef. Lavanty is the owner-operator and head chef of Nicolinni’s Ristorante, a continuation of the family business into which he was born.
“I always worked at a restaurant,” Lavanty says. “There are photos of me [as a child] standing on a milk crate chopping potatoes. I became a busboy at 12 years old and at 15 or 16 started waiting tables. Then I was a bartender for a short stint.”
But Lavanty was quickly drawn back to the kitchen.
“That’s where my passion is,” he says. “I was artistic in high school. I don’t draw or paint anymore so the kitchen is where I express my creativity. I enjoy the culinary arts.”
In addition to the Boardman location, there is also Nicolinni’s I – owned and operated by Pat’s brother, John – in Austintown.
The Lavantys grew up in the family business, which grew and changed as the family did. The restaurants trace their origin to Lavanty’s Pizza, which was started by their father, Nick, in 1962 on Belmont and Delaware avenues on Youngstown’s north side, and later moved a few blocks north.
Lavanty’s Pizza would transition into a full-service restaurant in the late 1970s, taking on the name Nicolinni’s. It moved to the Austintown site, 1912 S. Raccoon Road, in the 1980s.
“Nicolinni translates roughly as ‘Little Nick,’ [for] my oldest brother, who was named after my dad,” Pat Lavanty says.
The junior Nick died in 1995 and the senior is no longer involved in the two restaurants.
That first Nicolinni’s initiated the Mediterranean look that is carried on to this day.
According to “Classic Restaurants of Youngstown” by Thomas Welsh and Gordon F. Morgan, “the main dining area was flanked with 20-foot-high columns and iron arches,” with wrought iron light fixtures, slate walls, tile flooring and stained glass lamp shades. Nick Lavanty, the authors say, wanted his customers to feel as though they were visiting an exotic country.
The Boardman restaurant, 1247 Boardman-Poland Road, opened in 2005 with Pat in charge.
In response to a family need, Pat Lavanty recently cut back hours; the restaurant now closes at 4 p.m.
“I have to take care of my mom,” he says, explaining that she is having health issues.
“It’s a family restaurant and family comes first.”
Asked if he considered hiring a chef-manager to handle the dinner service, his response revealed his focus.
“I don’t want to say we’re control freaks, but my wife [Stephanie] and I, we put a lot of time in here and that’s why everything is so consistent,” he says.
“Everything passes through our hands or our eyes. We just had to change to this concept to get through some family matters. I’m not going to say that dinner won’t happen again, but for right now, this is what it is.”
The Boardman restaurant employs a staff of 17, down from the 52 workers it had when it was open throughout the evening.
It always had a strong lunch trade and that hasn’t changed.
“It’s a great location to do a good lunch business,” Lavanty says. “We also do great carry-out sales at 4 o’clock [just before closing]. We make a lot of to-go orders for people picking up dinner to take home.”
The lunch menu includes all of “the old standbys,” Lavanty says. “We cut very little from it, and there is a separate brunch menu that changes nearly every day.”
The Boardman restaurant is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Lavanty, a Canfield High School graduate, was about a semester shy of graduating from Youngstown State University in the early 2000s, but dropped out because his father got sick and he was needed to take the helm of the Austintown restaurant.
“I’ve been going strong ever since,” he says.
Pat’s wife, Stephanie, creates the desserts for the Boardman Nicolinni’s.
“We’re a staple in the Italian food scene,” Lavanty says. “We’re family run and our roots run deep here.”
Although he did not go to culinary school, working as a chef and restaurateur seems to have been preordained for Lavanty, who says he learned from the best.
“I was fortunate to grow up in the business, and I worked with some talented chefs along the way,” he says. “I learned from them and was always open minded to learning new habits and new dishes. And I like to eat. I eat a ton but fortunately I have a fast metabolism.”
Even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t matter. Lavanty stays in peak physical shape as an extreme athlete who is training to compete on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.”
He got his first shot in 2017 when the show had a regional round of competition in Cleveland. Lavanty did not advance but has been working to get another chance – and that might happen soon.
He recently received an initial callback from the show and is waiting to get the final call. He would have to travel to either St. Louis or Washington, D.C., to try out for the upcoming season, which begins in May.
While Lavanty works out regularly at a gym, he has also installed “Ninja”-style obstacles in his restaurant.
If you look closely, pegboards and hooks are visible high up on the walls, from which he climbs, swings and jumps.
“They’re hidden all over in plain sight,” Lavanty says. He installed them years ago to make it more convenient to get a “Ninja” workout.
While he has his hands full at present, he has given thought to opening another Nicolinni’s in the future. “We were approached about doing a downtown [Youngstown] location,” he says. “I’m not opposed to it, but this is not the right time for it. We’ll entertain that [possibility] further down the road.”