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Chef Tony Mantuano on Revamping Spiaggia and His Upcoming Chicago Restaurant

Tony Mantuano at Bar Toma, Chicago.
Tony Mantuano at Bar Toma, Chicago.
Photo: Galdones Photography

In just the last month, James Beard Award-winning chef Tony Mantuano has opened his first-ever restaurant outside of the Midwest (Lorenzo in Miami), announced an extensive revamp for his flagship restaurant Spiaggia on the occasion of its impending 30th anniversary, and this week revealed plans to open a new restaurant in Chicago in Spring 2014. "It's going to be a busy time," Mantuano says, in what seems a bit of an understatement.

This morning, Eater caught up with Mantuano by telephone to talk about his various projects. Mantuano discussed how looking to the past has given him inspiration for his newly announced restaurant, and why he thinks London is possibly "the most exciting restaurant town in the world right now." He also explains the need to revamp Chicago's iconic Spiaggia, saying, "I think you've gotta evolve because at some point you're going to become obsolete and dated." Finally, Mantuano also talks about what he learned through his Florida expansion and why you likely won't see his name on any airport restaurants. Here now, Tony Mantuano:

So you've got a lot going on right now. Let's start with the new restaurant going into the Fulton's space. Can you give me some background on that project?
Spending time in London recently, there's so many great restaurants now and there's so many restaurants that are chef-driven there. London was always considered not a good food city, not a good restaurant city, but there's so many great things happening there and so many chefs that are digging into the history of British cuisine. Dinner by Heston was a great experience and places like Roast, these are places [with] old-school cooking, but really delicious, well-done roasts and great beers. That was really appealing to me, although I never really had a location to do something like this.

When we looked at the Fulton space, I was like, "This isn't going to work either," because it's sort of dark and it's not taking advantage of the river location, everything is pushed away from the windows. And then I walked in there with the architect, Rivak Albazi, who had done Bar Toma and Lorenzo in Miami, and he was like, "No, let me show you what I was thinking." He was talking about taking out big sections of the floor, opening up all of the windows, moving the restaurant downstairs, and building a new open kitchen. All of a sudden, it started to make sense to me. So it was like, "Oh this actually could work." And then I started to get excited.

How long had you been thinking about the concept before the space was right?

I just think this kind of cooking is never ever going to go out of style.

I've been to London two or three times in the last year, so I'd say probably two years. It's looking back for inspiration. I just think this kind of cooking is never ever going to go out of style because it's so delicious and so satisfying and easy to understand.

You don't have a name yet, right?
We don't. That's the one thing we haven't figured out yet. We've been through a lot of 'em, but we just can't seem to find the right name.

You mentioned in an interview that you didn't want it to be too associated with a fish 'n chips restaurants?
Well, I mean, that's what you think when you think of a British restaurant. You think of fish 'n chips. I don't feel describing it as British cuisine is what it's all about. It's more like a roast house. It's warm and lots of wood and copper and bricks and that kind of feel. Like an inn you would find along your travels, someplace warm. So not British. I mean, it's really more American than it is British when it comes to products. If we could just find the name.

In 2014, Spiaggia will undergo a revamp as it celebrates its 30th year in Chicago. [Photo: Barry Brecheisen]

I think it's interesting what you said about how chef-driven restaurants have changed dining in London, but still that stereotype persists that it's all fish 'n chips. How do you get away from that stereotype?

London might be the most exciting restaurant town in the world right now.

Yeah, it's going to take a long time because for decades London has been the punchline of lots of jokes when it comes to food and restaurants. But I think it might be the most exciting restaurant town in the world right now. There's people that are doing modernist cuisine and there's people that are embracing the historical cuisine of England and the UK. The Spanish tapas bars are really great there, too. They have access to products that we can't get here. They have an advantage of being part of that whole European community where they can get terrific products, and their chefs are taking advantage of it. I think that's the impetus for all of this is just having the availability of those products.

You told our Chicago editor that the Spiaggia revamp was inspired by your travels, too, a move to keep up with the modern fine dining scene. Can you tell me more about that and why it was important to you to keep up?
When [my wife Cathy Mantuano and I] travel, we always are looking for something that helps our restaurants, always looking for inspiration. Out of anything that shapes what we do, travel is really important.

There is a new wave of great Italian restaurants like Ristorante Quadri, which is in Piazza San Marco [in Venice], the most touristy of all places in the world. It is an incredible restaurant. It's upstairs and you're overlooking Piazza San Marco. The experience that we had there, I don't think Cathy and I have ever done this before where we had dinner and then we went back the next night because we loved it so much. It was historical being in that setting, but it was very modern at the same time. There's a place in Rome called Metamorfosi, which is modern, but yet it's in a very old part of Rome. So you see this happening in Italy. The Italians are really great at combining the very new with the very old and making it make sense.

What is modern to you?
When you talk about modern, to me, it's about presentation. But it's also thinking about how many things you can take off the plate. Combining that with a very warm, unstuffy, hospitable, very welcoming [atmosphere], I think that's more modern than old stuffy service. And there's some whimsy to the way the room is designed.

No one says, "Oh, I went to Alinea and they didn't have linen."

I think people will see that in the new Spiaggia. We're going to be adding another layer of experience. We're going to have a lounge. That's something we've never had before. So you're going to be able to experience Cafe Spiaggia, then the lounge inside the new Spiaggia, and also then the modern fine dining experience of Spiaggia. We're like one of the last restaurants now that require men to wear jackets. That's not going to happen anymore. It's sort of crazy that we're still doing that, but only for the next couple of weeks. We're also taking linen off the tables. No one says, "Oh, I went to Alinea and they didn't have linen." They go to Alinea and they say, "Wow, what a great experience I had." I think you can create drama on the tabletops during the meal without using linen.

So again, it's removing stuff. It's getting down to barebones, but never compromising on the quality of the food. Never ever. The same products we buy at Spiaggia now, we'll buy in the future. It's really all about how you feel when you go there.

Right. Do you think some of your customers will miss that throwback with the linens and jackets? What about that nostalgia factor?
I'd imagine some of our longtime regulars will be upset. But, at some point, you have to change. I don't want Spiaggia to become a dinosaur. I want to reinvent it, re-imagine it, evolve it, and continue to be a place people enjoy even more. We're adding more to the experience of Spiaggia. I think one of the trends happening in restaurants is you're giving people more ways to enjoy the restaurant. You have many restaurants, if you will, inside of one restaurant because then you can have one experience in the lounge one night and then return and have a different experience in the dining room. So that's the evolution of Spiaggia. It's just being able to offer a Spiaggia experience to more people at a different level.

And so why are you doing it now? I assume it has to do with the anniversary.
Yeah, we thought about what we wanted to do for the 30th anniversary, which is next Spring. It just sort of all came together. It's weird because we had a record year in 2012. Why change it? Well, I think you have to. I think you've gotta evolve because at some point you're going to become obsolete and dated.

So you stay ahead of it.
Yeah, stay ahead of it. Right.

Tony Mantuano at Spiaggia, Chicago. [Photo: Galdones Photography]

And how are you doing on the restaurant's 30 things to do before 30 list? I love that idea.

We just got crazy, like let's play funk music in Spiaggia bar one night.

That's been great. We've knocked out a lot of it. We ran a burger for the first time in Cafe Spiaggia that was wildly popular. We just got crazy, like let's play funk music in Spiaggia bar one night. And we did it.

How did that go over?
You know, the bar was packed, and it was packed with people who normally don't think of coming to Spiaggia. We asked [Boka chef] Giuseppe Tentori to come over that night and we did some fun things with swordfish. We called it Fish and Funk. It was a blast. The bar was three-deep. That never happens in the bar at Spiaggia anymore. That's why that's going away. So we've been doing pretty well on that list.

Sounds fun. And then switching gears a little bit, how have things been going at Lorenzo, one month in?
We had some great opening parties, the place felt great, and then we went into Art Basel week in Miami in the first week of December. We went from doing 60-70 people to 300 people. It was really great. Terrific feedback. We just got approval to open the rooftop there, so it's like little by little, things are coming together. I'm very happy with the way the food is coming out of the kitchen. Cathy Mantuano built a great wine list there. We're selling a lot of wine. You would think more cocktails, and we have a great cocktail program, but Cathy's wine list is doing great.

What else have you learned now that you've been open awhile in Miami? How has opening there been different from opening in Chicago?
I think it's a challenge for staffing down there. The South Beach area where we are on Collins Avenue is pretty difficult to find people. There's a lot of new restaurants opening there all the time. I think there's been like five restaurants opening in December on Collins. So staffing has been really challenging.

The surprising thing to me has been what great products there are in Florida. Like the wild boar that we use for our gnocchi at Cafe Spiaggia. In Florida, we actually found Florida boar that's really delicious. I was blown away by a lot of the great products that are there. Chickens that are local, and lamb. I had no idea. Even great grass-raised beef. Our steaks are from Florida. And, of course, the seafood is terrific. Bottarga is something you traditionally think of [as coming] from Sardinia or Sicily. Florida Bottarga is even selling to Italy now because it's so delicious. That really surprised me.

What had been your impression of Florida products?
I mean, who knew? I had no idea. The more I got into it, the more I realized. And chefs like Michael Schwartz there have really done a lot for farmers and helped promote them. He's been a real inspiration. He has a restaurant across the street from us, and he has been super helpful. I think his restaurants are terrific.

Sounds like a good neighborhood to hang out in. And I know you told our Miami editor it was a great opportunity at the Redbury space, but I'm curious more broadly what your philosophy is when it comes to expansion. How do you know when a move is right?
I think it really depends so much on the deal and so much on who you're partnering with, who you're comfortable with. I'm not really interested in opening a restaurant just to open more restaurants. It has to have several factors that make me feel comfortable that it has a reasonable chance of being successful. To me, it's always about the freedom to do what I think is best when it comes to food and service. Being able to put your name on an airport restaurant and never having to visit it is not something I'm interested in.

I've worked 30 years in this business. I just don't want to piss it all away.

I mean, I've worked 30 years in this business. I just don't want to piss it all away. I'm still involved in every single dish in every restaurant. Nothing gets on the menu unless it's passed by me. The opening of Lorenzo kept getting delayed and I had other commitments that I thought [would] be fine. And then it was like, "Oh we're ready to open," but I had a commitment and I'm like, "You can't. There's nothing coming out of that kitchen unless I'm there." And the partners are like, "We agree. Let's push it back a week to make sure that everything's perfect."

And there's so many talented people that work in all of our restaurants. To give them opportunities and to have them grow is another reason [for expansion]. It's funny, almost all of them started at Spiaggia. Chris [Marchino] started as an intern at Spiaggia and he's risen all the way now to executive chef.

lorenzo st-1.jpg
The newly opened Lorenzo in Miami. [Photo: Cortney Cates]

Wow. So you like to keep the talent that you cultivate.
I do, and the only way you can do it is to give them opportunities. I think the new restaurant on the river is the only place where I'm bringing in a chef from the outside. The deal is almost done with him, but he's someone I've been friends with for 20 years. He's really terrific.

Who is it?
Oh, I can't [say], he's still employed and he's got a family. I need the deal done with him and then a name [for the restaurant].

And what's your game-plan for tackling all this over the coming months, managing the opening months of Lorenzo, the Spiaggia revamp, and the new restaurant?
We have some final construction meetings next week for both projects. Just finally putting everything to bed. So up until Christmas will be construction meetings and then we're going to take one last R&D trip to Italy and return right after New Years. Then Chris Marchino, who's now the executive chef at Spiaggia, is going to Italy when I get back to do a three-week sabbatical visiting all the producers that we use at Spiaggia and places like Quadri in Venice and Metamorfosi in Rome. He's going to go spend a couple days in those kitchens.

Then I'm planning to spend the last week of January in Miami [as well as] for South Beach Food & Wine in February. So it's really the babies that need the most care right now are Spiaggia and Lorenzo. Then Spiaggia will reopen right before the 30th anniversary in April, it'll probably be open by March. Then all the energy will be focused on this new place on the river and then that'll be open by patio season, by May. It's going to be a busy time. (laughs)

Sounds like it. What about Bar Toma these days?

Bar Toma is evolving into more of a full Italian restaurant than what we first envisioned.

Bar Toma has really been evolving as well. Erik Freeberg, who came from Spiaggia and who is now the executive chef at Bar Toma, has been doing a great job. What we thought when we opened was this was going to be a great pizzeria. And, as it turned out, in that location people want more. So the menu there has been evolving over the last year. We've added house-made gnocchi and pasta. We've added steaks. A lot of it is what guests tell us they want there. They want more than pizza. So Bar Toma is evolving into more of a full Italian restaurant than what we first envisioned. I thought, you know, [if] people walk in and they want pasta, just send them to Cafe Spiaggia. Well, no. They want a full Italian experience. They don't want to walk three blocks to Cafe Spiaggia. I was totally wrong on that one. (laughs)

Why listen to that feedback rather than the philosophy some have of sticking to your vision and saying that diners can go somewhere else to get what they want?
It's a big restaurant. I mean, it's 250 seats. So I want to appeal to a lot of people. I want Bar Toma to be that place that you can go to no matter who you are, no matter where you're from, as opposed to Spiaggia, which is at a different level. I want it to be something [where] everyone feels comfortable. So it was important for me to hear what people were saying. Erik has been pushing this, too. He wants to do more because he's really talented. It makes sense. It's being received extremely well. We're having a record December there right now. It was important to listen to people. It's a big place. It's more like a people's restaurant. The public is important there.

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980 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL