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The classic Montana Avenue red brick walls and the roof will survive, and the motor that lifted cars from the first-floor garage to parking on the second floor will have to stay. The motor is so large that the roof would have to be opened to lift it out.

"Everything else is a goner," said Billings developer Matt Brosovich about his family's latest project. "We're going to make it look nice again."

Matt Brosovich, along with younger brother Jake and two other partners, paid $400,000 for the century-old building at the corner of North 23rd Street and Montana Avenue, and they are spending $1.8 million to renovate it.

The garage will become the fifth restaurant in a Montana-based chain called Ciao Mambo, which uses the sales pitch "Where even the pasta is sexy."

The restaurant is just one of the redevelopment projects cooking along the east end of Montana Avenue. When Ciao Mambo opens this fall, the neighboring building to the west may become a brew pub and restaurant. And there is talk of redeveloping the former Depot Antique Mall building across North 23rd Avenue.

With the Brosovich brothers, the building came first.

"We bought the building because we liked it and we didn't really know what we were going to do with it," he said.

The Ciao Mambo concept started in Whitefish, where the first restaurant was opened in 2000, followed by Missoula; Hayden, Idaho; and Bend, Ore.

"Loud, colorful and about a subtle as a Brooklyn accent, this place is an impressive facsimile of a New York neighborhood Italian joint," wrote a reviewer in Food and Wine Magazine.

One block over at 2417 Montana Ave., Café Italia, a Tuscan-style restaurant, opened last November. This companion to McCormick Café was a project of Mike Schaer, who has remodeled half a dozen Montana Avenue buildings.

But the two restaurants have quite different styles.

Ciao Mambo will feature two open kitchens, a main kitchen and one for pizza. The kitchens and a bar will wrap around the west and north parts of the first floor, and the food will be immigrant-style Italian or more Americanized fare with attitude.

"Music is essentially what it's all about, a fast-paced, go-go-go restaurant," Matt Brosovich said.

Experienced management

One of the Ciao Mambo partners wants to remain unnamed, but the fourth partner and restaurant manager is Brett Evje of Bozeman.

Evje owns the Ciao Mambo in Missoula and is part owner of the restaurant Plonk in Bozeman. He's also a stone mason.

After Brosovich ate at Missoula's Ciao Mambo, it was a pretty soft sell to talk him into building one in Billings, Evje said.

"It's really middle-of-the-road price range, super fun and an upbeat family atmosphere," Evje said. "People are throwing pizzas in front of you and the flames are roaring and the garlic flying."

The sauces are made in-house. About 40 employees will be hired, and only dinner will be served. This is a restaurant chain that doesn't blend with suburbia.

"That's our goal for Montana, not to do a West End of Billings or a 17th Street in Bozeman," Evje said. "We want to be downtown in historic buildings, because that gives us our flavor."

Fir flooring the selling point

The Brosovichs formed two corporations for this project: DB Squared, which owns the building, and EB Ventures, which owns the restaurant.

After a career as a ski bum where he managed a dining room in Alta, Utah, Jake Brosovich returned to his hometown of Billings in 2006 and started a company called Yellowstone Basin Construction.

Because cars will no longer be parked on the top floor, there is no structural reason to keep 14 wooden posts carving up the restaurant area. Behind the paint, the wood is probably hemlock or fir, which Jake Brosovich said is very valuable.

"When I worked construction at Big Sky, they would sell these by the inch for $6 to $8 a linear foot," he said, meaning each post if worth at least $1,000.

The best selling point of the old building is the thick fir planks on the floor, which will shine when they are refinished, the brothers said.

The previous owner, Scott Stenehjem of Washington, started remodeling the Yellowstone Garage, including tearing out the staircase to the second floor built to house cafes and artists in Rue d'Artistes.

Hardy Construction of Billings will handle the renovation. The work includes repairing mortar between the bricks; installing new plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning systems; and replacing the old windows that look like a view through bad glasses.

The bulk of the $1.8 million financing comes from five local banks led by Western Security Bank and includes $150,000 from the Downtown Billings Revolving Loan Fund. When the building is completed, the second floor will be rented out.

The Yellowstone Garage is not registered on the National Register of Historic Places, but it lies in the downtown historic district.

"I actually prefer that. It's a lot less hassle and I can choose what to do," Matt Brosovich said. "Still, we'll do it right."

He spearheaded development of the Bighorn Resort off of Zoo Drive, home to The Wingate by Wyndham hotel and neighboring water slide, the Hampton Inn & Suites, Montana's Rib & Chop House and the almost-finished Veterans Affairs Community Outreach Clinic.

Timing is everything, especially in the food business, and Matt and Michelle Brosovich have inadvertently timed the opening of Ciao Mambo in late November or early December, to the birth date of their second child.

But that confluence doesn't slow down the brothers' competitive spirit.

"Let's just say Jake and I have proposals out and interest in other properties downtown," he said. "There are a lot of nice, old buildings in Billings, but a lot of them are vacant."

Contact Jan Falstad at or 657-1306.