Claire and Ava Topper hopped out of the car and waited on the South Allegheny Street sidewalk to meet celebrity chef Robert Irvine on Thursday with their mother, Leana Topper.
The family lives on the north end of Bellefonte, and made the quick drive downtown to see all the commotion from the Food Network’s “ Restaurant: Impossible” shoot at Mamma Lucrezia’s Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant.
“We’re big fans,” 10-year-old Claire said. “We love the show.”
Irvine was outside the restaurant Thursday afternoon mingling with television crew members and people who passed by thanking him for his work.
When a producer waved for the Toppers to “come on over,” the two girls timidly approached Irvine and shook his hand.
“That was so cool,” Ava, 8, said.
Television crews and volunteers made their way to Bellefonte earlier this week to prepare for the show in which Irvine critiques failing restaurants, then — in the course of two days and with a budget of $10,000 — sets out to return them to profitability.
“Just when you go into a place that’s such a beautiful place with great people, you just want to make an impact on the community because it’s the community that makes an impact on itself,” Irvine said.
Mamma Lucrezia’s owner Maria Albegiani told the CDT last week that she went through a lengthy application process to get help from Irvine. She said her biggest challenge was finding employees who work hard and have the same love of the business as she does.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Mamma Lucrezia’s was gutted from the inside out, then remodeled — right down to the menu and the personnel.
The floor was rotted away, so workers did some renovations and “transformed an old building into a new building” that aimed to give customers a “great feeling,” Irvine said.
“Working with Maria, she’s been great. You’ll see a lot of changes. Menu changes, material changes, and the people will change and their attitudes will change, and I’ll tell you this restaurant will be the best restaurant in this area,” Irvine said. “(It’s) the first time I really loved — and I mean it — loved the food. It’s exceptional. I’ve tried everything. This is going to be the place to be, hands down.”
But the crew first had to overcome obstacles, Irvine said.
“The process was really difficult. Anytime you have a small business in America as tough as it is with the economy, and when you have a family that is at odds, it’s tough. We have the brother across the street, so it’s been a tough challenge,” Irvine said. “The positive part is that I’m here. The positive parts have yet to come.”
Albegiani opened her restaurant 10 years ago, when she was 23. It was named after her mother, who passed away when Albegiani was 6.
Last year, her brother — whom Albegiani said she doesn’t get along with — opened a restaurant across the street called Bella II Authentic Italian Cuisine.
“I am shocked by this, and as you can imagine, deeply saddened. I have waited for some time to say something because, truth is, I have not known how to make sense of this myself. My own brother has decided to become my own competitor,” Albegiani wrote in a public statement on her restaurant’s Facebook page. “I want to make it clear that we are not in support of that business, nor do we have any affiliation with it.”
Producers announced last week that the community was invited to volunteer in the renovation efforts, and that there would be a grand reopening of the restaurant that the public was invited to attend.
Reservations filled within 15 minutes of the announcement, Albegiani said.
Jen Black found time to volunteer overnight from 8 p.m. Wednesday to 2 a.m. Thursday, acting as a materials liaison to an electrician and interior designer Cheryl Torrenueva.
“It was really interesting to see how it all goes down behind the scenes, and the before and after work,” Black said.
Clay Phillips, owner of Village Eatinghouse Marketplace & Café in Pleasant Gap, stepped up to help from 10 a.m. to dinnertime Thursday.
“When I got here, there was nothing inside,” Phillips said. “We painted, reupholstered the chairs and did a lot of organizing.”
He worked with about 20 other volunteers through the day.
“Oh, my goodness. Without volunteers there’s no way this kind of work would have gotten done,” Phillips said. “It was fun to do and a really great experience.”
Irvine said the public support has been overwhelming.
“A lot of people stepped up to help get things done,” he said. “With the volunteers, I treat them no different than I treat my own team. I push them as hard as I push my own team and as hard as I push the owners to change.”
But his main goal is to help struggling restaurants get back on the right track.
“This is a real show. Real people, real problems and we give real solutions,” Irvine said, adding that his work with “Restaurant Impossible” has an 87 percent success rate.
Irvine said he thought Mamma’s would be among his successes. “This is one (of them),” he said.
The Mamma Lucrezia’s taping will mark the 116th episode and will run sometime in September, co-producer Nicholas Smalarz said.