WESTERLY — Thirty-year-old actress Danielle Conti is a serious businesswoman who had a funny idea.
“I woke up one morning and said ‘I know what I want to do,” said the Pawcatuck resident. “I knew I loved theater and I knew I loved coffee.”
What she decided on is a new cafe called Allora, a coffee and comedy club on High Street.
Allora, she said, which means “and then,” in Italian, is open daily for coffee and treats, and on weekend nights for shows. On the businesses’ Facebook page, she describes it as “Allora... an intimate Italian Coffee Cafe by day... a Caffeinated Comedy Cavern by night.”
“Over in Italy, people say ‘allora,’ all the time,” Conti explained. “It’s a filler word. So, when people say, ‘Oh, you do improv style acting,’ I can say, ‘yes … allora … and then...’”
“Plus it’s one word,” said Conti’s brother, Brandon, a district manager for PepsiCo/Frito Lay, who majored in marketing in college and is serving as an advisor and backer for the business. “One word names are clean and they’re trending.”
High-spirited and up-beat, Conti, who grew up in Pawcatuck and graduated from Stonington High School in 2006, said once she had the idea to open the club, she marched on full-force ahead.
“I walked into Town Hall and said, ‘Hi, I want to open a business,’” said Conti with a laugh. “Everybody has been great … everyone has been so supportive.”
From her landlords, Elaina Antonino and Esaa Intrieri, to town officials, and from her family – mom, Maria; dad, Joe; and three brothers, Shane, Brandon and Joe – to her colleagues at the Granite Theatre, where she is a company regular, to her coffee advisor, Mario Luzzi, she said she has received nothing but support and encouragement.
“I love going to Town Hall,” she said, “I love the Town of Westerly.”
While it took some time and intricate work to make the space appropriately accessible and up to code as far as wiring and plumbing and approved fire-safe curtains, Conti remained – and remains – undaunted.
“There are so many things I want to do in this space,” she said with enthusiasm, “I want to start my own improv troupe and I want to offer acting classes too.”
“I want to give people an outlet,” Conti added. “A place to support and uplift ... a place for comedy and laughter.”
“It’s such a new idea for Westerly,” she said, “although all comedy is really storytelling.”
Along with a variety of coffees and soft drinks, Conti also sells homemade baked goods made from scratch by Westerly resident Romina DeGiacomo and, next month, she’ll introduce a fuller menu.
With the “Coffee House” music channel from Pandora playing Adele songs softly in the background, Conti sat upon a stool on the small stage she’s arranged for her guest comedians. A piano – (that just happened to “fit the vibe”) – was across from her, on the stage, while sofas, arm chairs and stools were comfortably arranged in every other nook of the café.
“I’ts laid-back,” said Conti, who counts George Carlin and Robin Williams as her two top favorite comedians. “I made it like a living room.”
Conti also found ways to incoporate unusual pieces from the region into her decor as well. Railroad ties, retrieved from the old Westerly tracks, will serve as hooks for a coat rack; pieces of slate from the old Mystic Middle School serve as chalkboards for kids to draw upon, and menus and pieces of wood saved from the old Campbell Grain building in Pawcatuck were re-purposed – by her uncle John Conti, a carpener – into tables and counters.
Conti, who played sports throughout her high school years, said she didn’t discover her love of theater and acting until her college days at Armstrong Atlantic University in Savannah. Once she did, her focus changed. Conti, who’s been working in theatre since 2010, also works backstage at the Garde Arts Center in New London for touring Broadway productions.
“Danni’s concept is like a modern day spin on the 1960’s coffee houses where anything and everything can happen,” said David Jepson, the artistic director of the Granite Theatre. “She’s planning on an open mic, comedy improv or any other artistic creation she can come up with.”
“Westerly has nothing like this,” he added. “If anyone can do a new business start-up, it’s Danni. She’s high energy, filled with ideas and a really outgoing people person.”
“It’s the first comedy club in Southern Rhode Island,” said Conti cheerfully. “And it includes a collection of thoughts from the brains of everyone around me.”
Conti said she’ll stagger the ticket prices – from $5 on Thursday nights (the “pre-booked open mic night”) to $10 on Friday and $15 on Saturday – so everyone can afford to pop in for some laughs.
This week, she said, she has comedians and groups coming from New York and Boston to share their jokes and stories with local audiences.
Although she has a few friends offering advice in the talent department, Conti plans to maintain control of Allora.
“She’s a hard worker,” said Luzzi one afternoon last week as he and Conti sat inside the newly-renovated space, which features exposed brick walls accented by soft shades of gray and white. “A very hard worker.”
“I think it’s a great addition to downtown Westerly scene,” added Brandon.
It may be a challenge running a small business in 2013, Conti said, but get a group of creative people together to challenge one another, and the sky’s the limit.
“Our parents always taught us that your attitude and your happiness are two things you can control,” she said with a wide smile. “I want to bring happiness back.”