Great Impasta to close after 25 years

By Jim Vorel

It’s easy to miss The Great Impasta if you’re not a regular visitor to the long-running independent Italian restaurant. From the outside, the building looks just like another generic storefront in the Champaign downtown, without the glitz of the nearby Boardman’s Art Theatre or Jim Gould’s. On the inside, though, The Great Impasta reveals itself as the community staple that has inspired great devotion from its regulars for the past 25 years. On the walls hang tokens of the local art community; in lieu of generic craft-store oil paintings, there are works by restaurant employees, local artists and friends of the restaurant. The feeling of family and familiarity is felt by both the restaurant’s staff and visitors. It is with a heavy heart, then, that lovers of Italian food in Champaign will likely react to The Great Impasta’s closing this December.

Harold Allston, the current owner of The Great Impasta, has been running the restaurant since 2000, when it moved to its current location at 114 W. Church St. He inherited the restaurant from its founder, Piero Faraci, “Papa Piero,” who was the inspiration for the restaurant’s style and many of its dishes.

“When Piero first asked me to work at The Great Impasta back in 1985, I couldn’t say no,” Allston said. “He had learned to cook in Italy and came to the United States when he was 17. When I met him, he was making pasta for area grocery stores.”

Piero was also involved in Champaign politics and helped plan the current Champaign downtown in the 1990s. In the late 1990s, Piero was diagnosed with cancer, and he asked Allston, by then chef at The Great Impasta, if he would carry on the restaurant.

“At the time, I looked on it as a legacy of the community,” Allston said. “I saw the people working here as close friends of Piero and of the restaurant, and I didn’t want to see his baby thrown to the wayside.”

Allston took over the restaurant and explored the move to a new location in the heart of downtown Champaign that Piero helped design. The Great Impasta reopened at its current location in 2000 and has stood there since. Allston said he thinks the end result is a mix between Piero’s tradition and his own restaurant.

“Fifteen years working with Piero was a long time to learn all of the traditional Italian recipes, and it gave me time to invent many of my own as well,” Allston said. “I also feel like we’ve become so much closer to the community, and they have been so wonderful to us. We have the most loyal clientele in town.”

Allston went on to say that some of the regulars are so loyal that they come in on the same days and times every week, even to the extent of ordering the same item every time. They come for the made-from-scratch pastas, soups and entrees that have been the restaurant’s hallmark since its inception, Allston added.

It is not for a lack of devotion, then, that The Great Impasta will be closing its doors on Dec. 31. Allston said he simply received a very generous offer for the building, and he is interested in possibly trying a new sort of establishment.

“It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” said Allston, fully aware of the irony. “I would love to keep the restaurant alive, and if not me, I would like to see someone else take over. I am interested in trying something new, but I don’t know what that new thing is yet. I do think that the closing is a good opportunity to go in a different direction, but at the same time, I still feel like I did in 2000, an obligation to the people who love this place.”

Allston’s employees said they wish that the restaurant were staying right where it is. Nate Lynn, a manager at The Great Impasta, has been working for Allston at the restaurant for five years. He has worked in restaurants for 16 years, since he was 18, and said Impasta is probably the best place he has ever worked.

“I’ve probably worked in more places than I haven’t in this town,” Lynn said. “Working in a restaurant environment can be really hectic, but this place is the best. Everybody gets along; it just has a vibe that you don’t find at other places. I’m definitely disappointed it will be closing, and I’ll miss it.”

Lynn said the restaurant’s regular customers have been begging for The Great Impasta to be relocated after the closing.

“We have people every day coming in and telling us not to close,” he said. “They all say, ‘I can’t imagine Champaign without The Great Impasta.'”

Pam Zachay, a patron of The Great Impasta at lunch on Tuesday, did not know the restaurant was closing in December and was disappointed to find out.

“It’s closing?” she asked. “Are you kidding me? I sure hope they relocate.”

While Harold Allston hasn’t yet decided what will be The Great Impasta’s ultimate fate, he encourages everyone to try one of Papa Piero’s recipes before December. He also said many students do not discover the restaurant until their junior or senior years, but that it often becomes a mainstay of graduate students in the Champaign area.

“Not that we’re trying to exclude anybody,” he hastily added with a smile. “Freshmen and sophomores, come on!”