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Late last year, Julio Ortíz and Esperanza Forero finally threw in the towel at their old location in the Shop Rite plaza and moved across Va. 122 to reopen in a space next to the Moneta Food Lion. They reopened on April 13 after nearly four months of work to turn what was essentially a large, empty room into a restaurant.
“We were forced to move,” said Esperanza.
She said that they were never able to get a lease agreement. The plaza is currently up for sale — for the third time since Lewis Creasey closed Shop Rite in September.
Esperanza said that business started to drop off after Shop Rite closed. By November, Lago was the only business, other than the gas station, still there. They retained a loyal customer base, but other folks weren’t coming in because the plaza appeared to be deserted.
Moving was a hard decision for the couple.
“We put a lot of money in that place,” she said.
They had made a lot of improvements to the two suites the business occupied, and lost all that when they moved.
“It was a big loss of money for us,” Esperanza said.
However, the combination of being in lease limbo and being in an otherwise empty shopping plaza made the situation untenable for them. Their last day at the old location was Dec. 15.
Julio designed the kitchen for the new location and they got to work on their interior construction project. During that time, they were reminded of what a loyal customer base they have. Esperanza said people came in to help them paint.
“It was amazing how everybody was asking , ‘Where did Lago Pizza go?’” she said.
They still have the same menu and remain the only local pizza place where you can buy Chicago style pizzas. This is a deep dish pizza with what would normally be the toppings inside. The sauce is on the top.
Julio is the chef. He learned his business working in Italian restaurants in New York for 10 years before coming here 25 years ago.
“Julio is the star in there,” Esperanza said, pointing to him as he worked in the kitchen to get ready for lunch. “I really admire my husband for his talent.”
Along with the quality of their food, Esperanza believes that being part of the Smith Mountain Lake community for so long also helps. Their children grew up here and graduated from Staunton River High School and their youngest son is now in the U. S. Air Force.
“They [local people] know who we are,” she said.
People see them in the restaurant, too.
“I’m always here,” she said. “I’m the one behind the cash register.”
And Julio is the guy in the kitchen hand-tossing pizza dough. You can watch him in action in a video on Lago Pizza’s Facebook page. They were featured on Fox 21/27’s The Hour of Joy in one of its Joy of Dining segments. The video of this is posted on the Facebook page.