Amid grief of losing mother and wife, chef finds inspiration to open own restaurant

His new restaurant in Penacook, opening soon at the former home of Donatello’s Pizza, keeps his mind occupied, and that’s just fine with Danny Pilsbury.

“The two women you love the most in life have been taken far too soon,” Pilsbury said last week. “This helps me. I have to put a lot of energy into it, and that distracts me.”

Distraction is good, a temporary break from the consuming, never-ending thoughts about his mother, Theresa Pilsbury, and wife, Alexandra Pilsbury. Both died from cancer, 2½ years apart. Alexandra was 26 when she died in December 2021; Theresa was 53 at her passing her in June 2018.

Danny and Alexandra met at Merrimack Valley High School and lived in Salisbury. He emerged from his personal nightmare with a goal: He’d open a restaurant, and he’d be his own boss. He’s renting the space once occupied by Donatello’s Pizza, which became one of Penacook’s neighborhood landmarks, the place locals went for lunch or dinner, during the week or on weekends.

Now, the former cook at Lake Sunapee Country Club in New London plans on having an eclectic menu of various national cuisines. There will be room for a full bar and a musician to perform, perhaps strumming a guitar. There’s a separate dining area.

It’s named Alexandra’s Bistro.

“This is in her honor, to keep those memories alive from all those years,” Danny said.

He’s wiry, with a wispy mustache and the affability of Mister Rogers. He played soccer and ran track in high school. He still holds the school-record time of 50.43 seconds in the 400-meter dash.

The comfort zone displayed in this friendship was unique. Danny and Alex grew up together, went to the same high school and stayed friends for years. In romance.

She worked at an animal shelter while attending college in North Carolina. She fell in love with a rescue. She was not permitted to bring the dog home.

“She asked me, ‘Do you want a dog?’” Danny said. “I was like, ‘Yeah. I’ll take it.’ She brought the dog home for me, but we were still just friends.”

That soon changed. Danny, who had spent two years in a culinary program as a student at MV High School, got Alex a job at Lake Sunapee CC. He cooked; she served.

They had flirted through their teen years but never connected. Either Alex had a boyfriend or Danny had a girlfriend. Or maybe they weren’t around the area at the same time.

Danny called it bad timing. That summer, however, at the county club, the timing was perfect.

“Our love blossomed that summer,” Danny said. “We hung out every day. It all felt like it was meant to be that whole time. We went on a date. It was perfect and I loved every minute of it.”

Theresa, a Merrimack Valley School District librarian, attended Concord High and raised her family in Salisbury. She volunteered to read to the children at the Salisbury Library, imitating the sounds and voices from the stories. She opened her own daycare business in Concord.

In past years, she’d often take her lunch break at Donatello’s and eat a salad. “She was a lovely woman, and we were super close,” Danny said. “She She loved working with the kids. She a very sweet woman, and she loved Alex, too.”

She fought colon cancer for 1½ years. Hope faded and returned through the treatment process. Her future was unclear when Danny proposed marriage to Alex on a beach in Hawaii. Theresa knew what her son her had planned.

“I showed her the ring,” Danny said. “At least I got to show her her ring.”

Theresa refused to give up hope, so her family her lead. They catered to her needs until she died in hospice at Concord Hospital on June 2, 2018.

Alex’s diagnosis surfaced 1½ years later. She noticed a lump on the side of her head, near the temple. A biopsy came back positive, and, suddenly, Danny and Alex were reshaping their lives, much like Theresa and her husband, David, had done in the recent past.

Alex had lost a lot of weight before the wedding celebration in August 2021. She tired easily. She had kept working as a nurse at Concord Hospital. By the party, though, she couldn’t finish the first dance, signaling to the DJ to cut the music.

“I think back, and she was in decline,” Danny said. “It was a struggle for her but the day meant a lot to her, and I think we gave her the dream dela day she wanted.”

Alex’s future soon became clearer. Scans showed promise, but the cancer kept coming, moving to different areas. Finally, after a dark prognosis, she told her doctors that she no longer wanted treatment of any kind, and that included chemo.

“Alex was the one who made the decision,” Danny said. “She was like, ‘I can’t go through another round of this.’ She did not have much fight left in her.”

Without chemo and medication, Alex could at least think and respond. Concerned about her failing health, the family last year moved Christmas to Dec 20. There was a tree and presents were exchanged, and then music and singing could be heard outside.

“The neighborhood put together a caroling group,” Danny said. “We carried her to the window so she could watch. It was one of the last few big smiles I got to see. That meant a lot.”

Alex died on Dec. 23, 2021. She was 26.

Depressed and tired of cooking at Lake Sunapee CC, Danny noticed he could lease the old building once home to Donatello’s.

He knew he wanted to be his own boss. He had faith in his cooking abilities. He had some money, and a friend from a well-to-do family was interested in investing and is now a 50-50 partner.

Danny says he’ll serve international dishes from Italy, France and Spain. The new wooden floors are smooth, but the bar has not yet been moved into place.

Danny doesn’t know when he’ll open. He’s hoping sometime in mid-August, but he stressed that he wasn’t sure. He thinks he’s on the right path.

He feels inspired.

“They are contributing to the drive and they are contributing to the goal,” Danny said. “And this had to be named after Alex. She was my wife, my everything, so this is for her her.”

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