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Food for Thought

By France Griggs Sloat

Little did Sarah Wagner know when she took her first job bussing tables at Barresi’s Italian restaurant at age 15 that she would one day return to the traditional, upscale restaurant in Cincinnati—as its owner.

But last year, at age 32, Wagner made that dream come true, purchasing the restaurant where she served as a busser, hostess, server and food preparer, all by the time she was 19. “I was always fascinated by food,” she says. “I’d watch the guys cook and see the guests mesmerized by the food.”

The experience prompted her to enter culinary school, where she earned an associate degree in chef technology. She then enrolled at Xavier, graduating in 2004 with a bachelor of liberal arts degree, and embarked on a series of cooking jobs, including as head chef at area country clubs and the Banker’s Club downtown.

But Barresi’s was always her favorite. So when a job as food and beverage director opened in November 2004, she grabbed it. And when the Barresi family began discussing retirement in August, she secured a bank loan and made them an offer. “They knew I wanted to keep it the same—the name, the building, the customer base. It’s known as the hidden gem.”

The next day, Barresi’s opened as usual—same menu, same atmosphere, same fine wines. But she’s made a few minor changes—new leather-bound menu covers, for instance. And though she’s busy managing the place, Wagner slips into the kitchen now and then to whip up some fancy dessert or take over cooking for a day. It’s her chance to add something new and fresh without upsetting the well-established clientele who come for the veal, the seafood, the authentic Italian sauces. And, of course, the memories.

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