Pinocchio’s Bar & Grill Serves What Northern Nevada Needs
No lie, it’s where out of towners go to feel like locals.
STORY BY MEGG MUELLER
PHOTOS BY KIPPY S. SPILKER
Family dinners are something many of us have a memory of—a meal where everyone gathers around the table, all talking at once, sharing jokes and stories full of laughter and connection. It’s a meal that is equal parts delicious, engaging, and memorable.
Now, take that meal and locate in an eccentric family member’s house, you know the one who has a crazy fun collection of memorabilia and whimsy lining the walls—with a story for most of it—and you’re getting close to the experience of dining at Pinocchio’s Bar & Grill.
John (JP to just about everyone) and Barbara Pinocchio opened their first restaurant in Reno in 1997, have since moved to a larger location and added a second restaurant in 2006 in Sparks to accommodate what they call their growing family. It’s family that is at the heart of everything they do, and if you dine at Pinocchio’s you become part of that family.
“When we opened at Moana Lane, we had four young kids,” JP says. “If we only had one table busy, I’d call her and say ‘you gotta come down here so we look busy.’ Then we’d get busy and all the tables would be booked, and I’d say ‘you gotta come down here and help.’ The kids would go in the office and sleep, and she’d get working.”
The Pinocchios weren’t gluttons for punishment, starting a restaurant with so many little kids at home, but the timing presented itself and the original plan was to have a small restaurant with the focus on a catering business. But Pinocchio’s became something of a local favorite, with people returning over and over for JP’s dishes and the chance to spend some time in the restaurant that became known almost as much for its décor as its tasty food.
“When we opened, we had about four pictures and it drove me nuts because it seemed so plain Jane,” JP explains. “I started going to every garage sale and yard sale and she’d throw 90 percent of it away, and hang the rest. Then I got into old Reno history stuff, and now we’ve got Harold’s Club items, Houlihan’s booths, Liberty Bell stuff, and things from Vario’s.”
The homage to some of Reno’s historic eateries is part of the sense of community that runs so strongly through John, Barbara, and their daughter Jillian, the only one of the couple’s four children who took to the restaurant business. For all three, Pinocchio’s is almost a second home and the people who come in are more than just customers.
The inspiration behind the menu is fairly simple, JP says.
“Food to me is a couple things. It’s about the atmosphere and the conversation; it’s something you share. We still to this day, every Sunday, have family dinner. Around the table you make memories and everlasting relationships.”
Currently, the menu is using what they call “The New Normal” menu, which is a truncated version of the normally massive menu. But all the choices still follow JP’s premise of serve fresh food only.
“We don’t do anything premade. We fresh grind our turkey and our hamburger. We try to give everyone a variety, and we serve a larger portion because I eat!” he says.
Jillian expands on her dad’s philosophy: “People come in and say ‘oh, I thought you were an Italian restaurant.’ They ask why the restaurant is called Pinocchio’s and they don’t really believe us that it’s our last name,” she says with a laugh. “We definitely have some Italian flare, like we’re known for our lasagna and we make great spaghetti and meatballs, but we’re an American-Italian restaurant. We’re pretty well-known for our smoked meats—our ribs, prime rib, our tri-tips. It’s a family restaurant where you can get something for everyone. “
Giant burgers, a “big-ass salad,” tasty sandwiches, and pizzas add to the pastas and steaks, along with daily specials that can tempt even the most diehard Pinocchio’s fan away from their favorites. Well, maybe.
“Our menu can be a little handcuffed sometimes because our customers eat the same thing every time they come in. Most of them come in for one thing and one thing only,” Jillian says.
When the pandemic hit, and restaurants were forced to close, it threw the Pinocchios for a loop, needless to say.
“It’s been a learning experience every day. It caught me off guard. I’m pretty conservative so I always knew there could come a time when I’d have to put back into the business, but I never had a plan to go to zero,” JP says.
The shutdown hit the family financially and emotionally, and the struggle to regain some footing under the mandates presented proved to be a challenge but the family came together, decided to close the Sparks location temporarily (it has since reopened), and began doing curbside pickup from the Reno location. While a difficult pivot, all three are quick to note an unexpected positive outcome.
“When we opened for curbside and the support that we had,” Barbara says, pausing, “…it was very emotional to me. The support we had from our regular customers; well it was really cool.”
“I’m not sure a lot of good has come out of this, but we have a really great local customer base and the relationships…we’ve gotten to get to know them even better,” Jillian adds. “It’s just been amazing. We had people driving across town to pick up food every day.”
For JP, it was anything but business as usual.
“I’ve always felt like I can navigate through anything and I’ll come out ok, and this one’s hog tied me in a lot of ways. If we weren’t as old as we are, and didn’t have the loyal support of our community, I don’t think we would have made it,” he says. “A lot of great restaurants closed. It’s sad. But I love our business and I love our customers and I could just not imagine not doing this.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
Eventually, however, JP and Barbara do plan to step back a bit and let Jillian take over. Due to the pandemic, that plan got delayed.
“The plan was going to be in the next three to four years we were going to pull back a bit and she was going to take the front seat,” JP says. “But in these times we’ve put some of our retirement back in, so it might be a little longer.”
For those used to seeing JP and Barbara, don’t fret, though. Jillian believes her dad will never be far from the restaurant.
“His retirement plan,” she says smiling, “means he’ll only be here four to five hours a day. But I get it. You have to love what you do. You couldn’t do this if you didn’t love it. Our restaurant is our family.”
JOIN THE FAMILY
Pinocchio’s Bar & Grill
5995 S. Virginia St.
Reno, NV 89510
4820 Vista Blvd.
Sparks, NV 89436