City officials often visit Continental Manor, but their visit Tuesday afternoon was especially meaningful to Dominick and Frank DeNicola, the brothers who have owned the Main Street landmark for 32 years.
Norwalk Mayor Richard A. Moccia and Tim Callahan, director of the city's Department of Health, stopped by at about 4 p.m. to recognize Continental Manor for achieving the city's highest health inspection rating for each quarter in 2012.
"They get high-90 scores, which means certainly they're doing a great job," Tom Closter, director of environmental services for the Department of Health, said of the catering and banquet facility at 112 Main St. He said Continental Manor scored 96 out of a possible 100 on Feb. 23; 97 on May 24; 96 on Aug. 29; and 96 on Dec. 12.
By scoring from 90 to 100 in each quarter, with no critical violations, Continental Manor was given three lighthouses in the Department of Health's restaurant rating system and received a Lighthouse Award certificate to display.
Tuesday marked the fifth year that the department has given Lighthouse Awards to city restaurants.
"We're very honored to get the award, to be specifically picked like that," Dominick DeNicola said. "We treat all our guests here as if they're coming into visit our home."
Frank DeNicola said, "You always want to feel as though you're taking care of the business as though it were your home. The way I keep my house is the way I keep my business. That's the way we believe in serving people -- very clean, neat and always on top of everything."
The DeNicola brothers, who live in Stamford, credited Mohan Paundlay, the head chef, and the kitchen staff for ensuring the business stayed on top all four quarters. Dominick said Paundlay has worked at Continental Manor for at least 25 years.
Dominick said city health inspectors always show up unannounced for inspections.
"We always keep it clean and neat so we're ready," he said. "We're not waiting for them to come in; we're always ready."
While Continental Manor's feat was impressive, 165 other restaurants in Norwalk, out of a total of roughly 400, also garnered three lighthouses last year, Callahan said. He said the city decided to visit Continental Manor on Tuesday because it's "a longtime Norwalk institution and so many people come here, whether it's a Little League banquet or a wedding. Many people who live in Norwalk pass through the doors."
Greg Burnett, a member of the city's Board of Health, said he enjoys Continental Manor because of its great food, great service and warm and welcoming atmosphere. He said city officials "thought it was important to come and acknowledge the good work they do here."
"As we reviewed the list of establishments that were on the Lighthouse list this year, we felt it was important to come here and acknowledge they are a staple of Fairfield County," Burnett said. "Groups and companies come here from all over, not just Norwalk. I guess you could call it a Norwalk landmark."
Moccia said Continental Manor hosts a lot of banquets, luncheons, dinners, wedding receptions and other functions, including the annual Mayor's Ball, and that he visits so often, "There are times I feel like I should be paying them rent."
"I have to walk away from the buffet sometimes they put so much food out," Moccia joked.
Closter said criteria for city health inspections are based on the Connecticut Public Health Code and include 62 items that total 100 points. Leaving a wiping cloth on a counter is equal to a one-point violation, while critical violations, equal to a four-point violation, include spoiled food, improperly handling food and maintaining food at the wrong temperatures, which can encourage the growth of bacteria and make people sick, Closter and Callahan said. Callahan said cold food has to be kept at a "holding temperature" below 45 degrees and hot food at a holding temperature above 140 degrees.
Callahan said the city started its Lighthouse Awards program five years ago not only to recognize restaurants that maintain sanitary conditions but to inform residents of where those restaurants are. He said www.norwalkhealth.com, the website where residents can look up restaurants' Lighthouse ratings, receive tens of thousands of hits.
"The people running food businesses in Norwalk know the public is looking," he said.
Only class-three and class-four food establishments, which are generally defined as those involved in hot preparation of potentially hazardous foods, are eligible for Lighthouse Awards.