The Landing Zone (Closed)
I’m very excited to write this page. This is the eighth of what may ultimately be 169 town completion celebration pages! Yes, of course I am fully aware of how absurd that is. Send your condolences to my wife and children, care of the comments below.
For those of you who are new here… In late 2016, after a decade of writing CTMQ, I decided to try to “complete” towns. In that decade of traveling and writing, I had already done a lot of stuff in most of our towns already. However, I have been continually surprised by how much more there often is to do. This page you’re reading includes my “town completion celebration meal.” These will sometimes be at the best restaurant in town. Or the most historic. Or the most iconic. Or the most unique. Or the only one. Or at a gas station. Every town is different!
Let’s get to it.
Harwinton, Litchfield County
Harwinton was my: 8th town completed
First CTMQ Visit: Tunxis White Dot Trail, April 2008
The Celebration Meal
[Update: The Landing Zone closed for good at the end of 2018, as you’d expect if you had my experience below. Regardless, I’m glad I got to experience The Landing Zone!]
Alright, look. I had only a few choices when choosing where to celebrate my momentous accomplishment in Harwinton. But let’s be honest – there was really only one option: The Landing Zone. After years of passing its marquee out on route 4 boasting of all sorts of “weird” proteins (alligator! snails! elk! frog!), and seeing pictures of its unique interior, and hearing about its… passionate owner… I had to go.
While the owner treated me well, he is rather infamous for not doing the same to everyone. If you read anything about The Landing Zone, it’s impossible to ignore customer complaints about the owner. Having met him, he’s… an interesting guy. He clearly loves his restaurant.
He’s a bit manic and, let’s say, over-eager… though my interaction with him was a good one! My man just needs to chill. And clean a bit more thoroughly perhaps.
Turns out, you can judge a book by its cover. The dilapidated condition of the restaurant’s outside is only exacerbated on the inside. The motif here isn’t “shabby chic” as much as it is just “shabby.” They are fond of license plates. Fine. But when you use license plates to repair holes in the floor, I have to question things.
Like… when was the last time the model airplanes hanging from the ceiling were dusted?
Eesh. The restaurant runs a smoky operation, and whenever anything is on the grill, the dining area fills with smoke. I was having lunch with only two other patrons, and the place was filled with smoke. What’s it like in here when it’s busy?
Is it ever busy?
If the local health district has their way, The Landing Zone will never be busy again. As much as the owner loves serving customers, the state likes serving him shut-down orders. The following is from The Waterbury Republican-American in early 2018:
HARWINTON – The owner of the Landing Zone Grille rejects the Torrington Area Health District’s assessment that the restaurant violated health and fire codes.
“You could eat off the floor,” Joseph F. Furnari said Friday. “I would not ever serve anybody anything that I would not eat myself.”
Let me stop Joe right there. My man, please don’t eat off your floor. While I saw no bugs or anything SUPER gross, the floor here is not a nice floor. I repeat, do not eat off the floor at The Landing Zone.
Furnari claimed he had never had problems before, but the restaurant previously failed health district inspections in 2013, 2011 and 2009…
After the restaurant failed inspections in September and December 2017, the Torrington Area Health District gave Furnari one last chance to correct the code violations they found or the Landing Zone would be ordered closed. Two weeks later, the Landing Zone did not pass that inspection and was ordered closed on Dec. 21.
“This is really horrific,” Furnari said.
Yeah, man, it is. That’s quite a pattern of failure. Why was I eating here? Oh yeah, because I’m an… ADVENTURER! A seeker of interesting stories! Where else could I order “Alligator bites” and an elk burger for lunch?
Which is exactly what I did. After standing around and looking at all the junk on the walls for 10 minutes waiting for someone – anyone – to acknowledge my existence, I was seated at a table with a roll of paper towels and a random hot sauce. The old TV hanging from the ceiling was showing an old episode of Dirty Jobs.
Which made perfect sense.
Furnari estimated he would lose between $50,000 and $80,000 worth of meat, from alligator to Angus, that he had purchased before the health district ordered the restaurant to close.
“I’m really freaked out,” he said. “I’m so scared. This is my only work.”
Furnari said he was already a month behind on his rent for the restaurant, but his landlord, George Pelletier, said the restaurant’s rent had been paid and he was not aware of the closure.
What is going on? Why would a little divey restaurant in Harwinton, near the site of long-closed regional airport, have $80,000 worth of meat on hand? That sounds insane. Almost as insane as learning Furnari has a landlord for this place AND claimed to be in arrears on rent but wasn’t.
Obviously, Furnari is open. I do believe he was shut down in early 2018, but was able to reopen in April.
The menu here is MASSIVE. It’s nearly the size of The Cheesecake Factory’s menu and from what I gather, Furnari (at least during my Saturday lunchtime visit), is the owner, renter, host, bartender, server, busboy, and chef.
This place is bonkers. My alligator was served within reasonable time with a flourish: “Here’s your alligator action!” I was told. I was also told how great it is. Okay, cool.
I’ve had alligator before and it wasn’t very exciting. At The Landing Zone, it was also not exciting – but not bad either. It’s reptilian chicken. But really, how many reptiles do Americans eat? I’ve had real snapper soup before, but I think that’s about it. I know people eat iguanas in Central America, and I know Anthony Bourdain absolutely hated it.
I can report that the alligator bites in Harwinton, Connecticut are better than the Iguana tamales in wherever Bourdain was. RIP.
Furnari said he believes the inspections were performed improperly. He said he thinks the health district , with the goal of shutting down his business, cited the restaurant for problems that he already had fixed.
“That’s his opinion,” Health Director Robert Rubbo said of Furnari.
Asked why the health district would have mangled the inspections, Furnari said it was because Deputy Health Director Thomas Stanisfield had a personal problem with him, but declined to be more specific.
“We don’t get along and he wants to close me down,” he said.
Furnari said he believes this attitude toward him extends across the health district.
“They hate my guts. They hate me so bad,” he said.
Stanisfield said he does not have anything against Furnari personally.
Furnari said Stanisfield’s participation in the inspections late last year were evidence of a grudge against him. Stanisfield countered that he regularly participates in inspections.
Furnari is not going down without a fight. He plans to appeal the health district’s decision and will have a hearing on Jan. 16.
A few things here. “That’s his opinion?” “They hate my guts? They hate me so bad?” Hmmm, that sounds like someone we hear in the news a lot these days. Can’t quite figure out who. (This was a reference to former President Donald J. Trump, which – and this is true – was actually elected president in 2016 for some reason.)
The Landing Zone was indeed open in early June 2018. So Furnari won a battle it appears. I must admit that I was happy for that, as I was finally able to sink my teeth into an elk burger.
I was again manically told that I was about to enjoy my “elk action” as Furnari slid me my giant burger with an absurd mountain of vinegar chips on the side. Holy crap. My main only needed to be half this size. What had I gotten myself into?
The chips were delicious. Elk is not delicious. There’s a reason people usually eat cows and not elk. Of course, who knows how long my perfectly formed elk patty had been frozen, but that’s not really the point. Elk is tough and very lean and generally flavorless.
I know it’s my fault for ordering alligator and elk – I won’t apologize for my Miller High Life, which is by far my favorite low-end beer – and it’s not like I went into this ordeal having high hopes for either. And who knows, maybe Furnari the Chef is a wizard with elk and alligator? I have no frame of reference.
Proprietor Furnari, though, is no wizard. Host Furnari is a mess. Server Furnari is fine, just a bit loony. Busser Furnari was nonexistent. Decorator Furnari should be jailed. Janitor Furnari scares me. And Handyman Furnari needs to shut his place down and get to work.
Yeah. That’s the men’s bathroom door. A door that wouldn’t even dream of being closed flush with the jamb. Good lord.
Oh, and Cashier Furnari is… I hope other people run the till here during busier hours. My bill was $33.13. This is a cash-only establishment. At least I think it is. Regardless, he only had one dollar in the register.
One. Dollar. So he got all 40 of my dollars. A 29% tip on the pre-tax meal amount. Let’s hope Owner Furnari uses my generosity wisely and, oh, I don’t know, puts a new door on the bathroom.
The online reviews of this place actually aren’t all that bad. People seem to love it. Some find it’s generally terrible condition charming. The portions are quite large and some say the prices are decent. (Again, I have had no equivalent meals of prehistoric reptile and large tundra game which to compare.)
Despite his “woe is me” attitude and general contracting ineptitude – and string of health inspection failures – Joe seemed like a well-meaning guy. He was incredibly thankful I had stopped in, and encouraged future visits. I can’t pretend I ever will (I won’t, let’s be honest), but I’m glad I did this once.
After all, could I really ever say that I’ve “completed” Harwinton without a meal at The Landing Zone?
Phew. That was certainly the longest “celebration meal” write-up I’ve done thus far. I feel like I should hurry this section of my “completion” page. For all of our sakes.
I don’t think people give Harwinton much thought. Until I began crisscrossing the town, my Harwinton thoughts were, “Neat sign box,” and “slow down for the cop who is always at the bottom of the hill on route 4 on my way to Litchfield and beyond.”
And I think Harwinton is just fine with that. After all, it’s a small town with small town ways. Its three museums are all very small and very Harwinton-centric. It does contain the largest wildlife management area (Roraback WMA) in the state which came as quite a shock to me. It’s land trust maintains a bunch of really nice little trails.
And heck, Harwinton inspired my very first “town essay” because it has a bunch of little uncategorizable things around town – and has a very unique name that no one pronounces correctly. There seems to be a growth spurt of McMansions around town and I’m sure some relatively well-off families are deciding to put roots down here. I’d guess several executives at ESPN have recently settled here, in favor of privacy and anonymity over the “excitement” of West Hartford and Litchfield.
Oh, and I saw my first beavers in the wild here. And for that, if nothing else, Harwinton will always hold a special place in my heart.
Thought exercise: If I had to send someone to Harwinton for a day… I would struggle a bit before setting them loose at the land trust’s Forever Forest and Bull Pond Preserves. After working up an appetite, I would not send them to The Landing Zone. I would strongly suggest they hit up Roraback WMA in the late spring to enjoy the 9/11 memorial daffodil fields and have a lovely picnic lunch there. Since none of the museums will be open during a random visit, I think that’s all I’ve got. But I still like Harwinton very much.
Surprise: How amazingly the Harwinton Land Trust maintains their trails
Favorite fact: That they really care about being the only “Harwinton” in the world. Supposedly.
Disappointment: See restaurant, above.