From waitress to business owner: 20 years at Pasta Pasta

From waitress to business owner: 20 years at Pasta Pasta

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Debra Bowling, the new owner of Pasta Pasta, and her husband Jerry. Photo by Kyle Barr

Debra Bowling, the new owner of Pasta Pasta in Port Jefferson village, knows the customers who walk through the old wood doors. She herself started 20 years ago as a waitress and has kept loyal to the restaurant ever since. Now, after two decades, she’s in charge.

However, despite owning the restaurant, she expects she will still continue to wait tables.

“That’s not going to change,” Bowling, a Setauket resident, said. She was almost successful at suppressing a laugh. “We still have two kids in college, so I really put a lot of hours in here. I said if I’m going to work so hard, I might as well work for myself.”

The restaurant serves what the new owner described as American food with an Italian flavor, providing everything from fish to pasta to salads. The eatery is also famous for its flaky and moist garlic bread.

Previous owners Steve Sands and Jules Buitron bought Pasta Pasta back in 1998, already owning another restaurant on the South Shore. Sands said they already knew and liked the Port Jeff restaurant, back when its menu was limited to pizza and pasta, so they decided to purchase it and bring in Bowling, who was at that time planning on moving to the North Shore.

Pasta Pasta in Port Jefferson Village. Photo by Kyle Barr

Once Sands and Buitron decided they wanted to sell, Bowling was the first person they talked to about buying the restaurant.

 

“She’s a hard worker, she knows the business and she knows the customers,” Sands said. “She’s got a great team. Much of the kitchen crew has been there before we even bought the restaurant.”

Sands said he still plans to visit the restaurant when he can.

“The reason I bought it because it’s always been my favorite restaurant,” he said.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a big transition for Bowling and her family. The new restaurant owner’s husband Jerry is also there on a regular basis where he can be seen manning the phone and helping with whatever needs doing. 

So much of Bowling’s life has been spent at the restaurant, and her children have also moved through the restaurant as a part of growing up.

“Five of my six kids have worked here, and two of them still work here,” the restaurant owner said. 

While many have moved on, the kids have been supportive of their mother’s new venture, with her son Ryan Burns posting a heartwarming social media message to his mother saying how much she inspired him.

And even with these new expectations laid on her shoulders, Bowling still has two families to assist her, one at home and one at work, including kitchen manager Anthony Vadala, who has helped Bowling and her team throughout the years. Now with her running the show those two families are more intertwined than ever.

“We’re all a family here, the kitchen staff has been here before me,” she said. “Most of the waitresses were here between 10 and 15 years.”

“We’re all a family here, the kitchen staff has been here before me.”

— Debra Bowling

Bowling intends to keep the food and the atmosphere the same as it has been, though she does have a few design changes in mind, including some new paint on the walls, new bathrooms and replacing the windows up front so they can be swung open on atmospheric summer evenings.

The customers who have gone to the restaurant for years probably couldn’t accept too much change, and there are quite a few regulars. Even before she owned the restaurant, Bowling was a well-known face to her multitudes of regular customers, often those who have their own set of menus internalized in the minds of the Pasta Pasta staff. Some of those longtime customers who constantly travel make it a point to stop in her restaurant, even going out of their way to call ahead of time and beg the restaurant for a bowl of pasta, the kind the restaurant staff knows they like in particular. Baby showers have been hosted in the restaurant, and just last year, the restaurant hosted a wedding as well.

“On New Year’s Eve we had a wedding here,” Bowling said. “They met on their first date here on New Year’s Eve two years ago. She met here, she has to get married here … That’s just from them getting to know us over the years.”