A lot can happen in a year. Just ask Ray and Sue Wilson, owners of Napoli Cowboy, which recently celebrated its first anniversary.
“We served over 300 meals on opening night, Nov. 18, 2017,” Ray said.
“Nearly 45,000 customers have given us the privilege of serving them food and drink since,” Sue added.
While its physical location is at the corner of Burnt Chimney and Lovely Valley roads, the restaurant’s slogan, “Where the taste of Texas and Italy collide,” could be what keeps patrons coming back.
Steve Sheema is a weekly Napoli regular.
“This is a neighborhood-type place,” said Sheema, who retired to Smith Mountain Lake 10 years ago. “Terrific food and drinks, friendly staff, people thoroughly enjoying themselves. I love coming here — sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. Doesn’t matter.”
Seated at the restaurant’s horseshoe-shaped bar, Sheema was about to dive into Napoli’s Sunday Sauce, a dish of pork, veal and beef meatballs and Italian sausage in tomato sauce served over a mound of spaghetti.
“The atmosphere here reminds me of the bar at ‘Cheers,’” he said, referring to the classic TV situation-comedy.
The Wilsons’ goal was to make Napoli Cowboy a “family place.” To begin with, that’s literally true. Son-in-law Brad Eames serves as executive chef, daughter Melanie is front-end manager overseeing customers’ dining experiences and son Ray-Ray serves as sous chef.
Eames’ culinary team, including Tony Muccino, Brian Fairweather, Alec Bosko and mother-son pair Tammy and Ronnie Hodges, smokes all the meats on premises and creates exclusive sauces for Eames’ signature dishes and Sue’s Italian-heritage recipes.
Today, Napoli Cowboy has 35 employees, several of them related to another staff member.
“We treat them all like family, and we insist that they treat customers the same way,” Ray said. “It makes for a happy workplace and satisfied customers. Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t come in hoping to land a job here.”
The restaurant is open for dinner on Mondays, lunch and dinner Thursdays and Fridays, and offers breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays, too. “We’re closed Tuesday and Wednesday, for recuperation,” Ray joked.
More realistically, days off are rare. “We’re often here for deliveries and restocking, for heavy cleaning and for weekly family meetings to discuss how things are going and decide on upcoming specials,” Sue said.
Specials are chosen to suit a variety of tastes, such as pasta and beef and seafood, including salmon, haddock, grouper, sea bass and a spicy Texas shrimp bread bowl.
In addition to Sunday Sauce, regular dinner items include Texas pork ribs, steaks, burgers, firecracker shrimp and fried oyster appetizers, lasagna and house-made pizzas.
“Everything on the menu is made from scratch, with fresh ingredients,” Eames said. “We won’t have it any other way.”
While the restaurant has been open for a little more than a year, it took six months to create it. “The building we bought was in need of some serious TLC, and almost everything inside was broken,” Ray said. “Brad, Mel and Ray-Ray quit their jobs and moved to SML to become laborers, carpenters and painters for the renovation. They tried cleaning the kitchen and soon decided it had to be gutted and redone — new stoves, new refrigeration, new exhaust hoods, new everything.”
In the dining room, the ceiling was replaced, walls were torn down, floors were refinished and the restrooms were remodeled.
“It’s basically an all-new old place. And we have approval to open adjacent outdoor seating with an entertainment stage for the coming season and hope to eventually attach a 100-seat banquet room that will also handle restaurant overflow as needed,” Ray said. “Our family loves this community, and so many of our customers are now like extended family to us.”