Tony Mantuano, Chicago’s maestro

An internship with the Santinis, his love for Trippa and Romito, the difficulties of our cuisine in the US. An interview with the chef from Spiaggia

11-10-2017

Tony Mantuano, originally from Wisconsin, is patron chef at restaurant Spiaggia in Chicago since 1984, one Michelin star. In the same city he also owns Cafè SpiaggiaPurple PigTerzo Piano and River Roast (photos by Brambilla/Serrani)

When on the 4th November 2008 Barack Obama asked him to celebrate his first two presidential mandates in his restaurant, Tony Mantuano was thrilled. And even Matteo Renzi, when he met him in the kitchen of the Department of State in Washington DC almost a decade later, turned to John Kerry and Joe Biden and asked them: «I love Spiaggia, have you ever been?».

Perhaps they said yes because this strong bodied chef with a radio voice, a kind smile and clear voice has made the best Italian cuisine in Chicago for the past 33 years. For him and wife Kathy, in the dining room, this has always been a way of preserving the Calabrian and Molisan roots of their respective parents, which have actually been reinforced by their recently receiving an Italian passport.

«We’re very happy», says Mantuano sitting one morning in front of a coffee, with the sun seeping through the large windows of his restaurant in the West Loop, «because next time we’re in Italy, we can stay as long as we want. And we can fulfil our dream: open an agritourism».

When did you first go?
In 1982, two years before opening Spiaggia. A friend who imported marble from Tuscany created a contact for me with Dal Pescatore in Canneto sull’Oglio. At the time it wasn’t usual for two American chefs to take an internship so far away. There was no Internet and only the few food lovers who read the Michelin guide knew the names of fine dining restaurants.

The dining room at Spiaggia

The dining room at Spiaggia

What do you remember?
I have fantastic memories. It’s a place which, together with Bersagliere, put into practice our vocation. Massimo Ferrari’s restaurant in Goito had superb elegance. Pescatore was simpler and cosier. I remember Nadia was pregnant with Alberto, while firstborn Giovanni was two. Today they run the restaurant. The hospitality of the Santinis is unforgettable. We decided that, once home, we would replicate that format.

What was Italian cuisine like in Chicago at the time?
Full of stereotypes, and in a way it still is. Spaghetti with meatballs ruled. We didn’t care what the best Italian restaurants in Los Angeles or New York were making. We wanted a great fine dining restaurant, with the same style and warmth as Pescatore.

What were your first dishes?
There were two restaurants, just like these days. At Caffè Spiaggia there was an oven for pizzas. At Spiaggia instead we roasted lots of meat and fish. But we were also studying innovative dishes such as Black pasta, with squid ink. It created uproar because nobody had every seen anything similar.

Mantuano with the executive chef at Spiaggia Joe Flamm

Mantuano with the executive chef at Spiaggia Joe Flamm

Over the years you received many acknowledgements, from the James Beard Award to the Michelin star in 2011. 
Indeed, a great satisfaction. And they keep coming since we revolutionised the architecture of the two restaurants two years ago. We removed table cloths and people still approve. But the greatest satisfaction is the number of chefs we’ve trained in our kitchen: from Missy Robbins to Sarah Grueneberg and Michael White. Spiaggia is the place where you learn to make real Italian food. Many people realise this.

What kind of teacher are you?
I try to teach partly by giving examples, partly with pedagogy. Some recipes, you have to explain in detail. Take risotto: people in America don’t make it. This is why as soon as he arrived in Canneto last March Joe [Flamm, the executive chef now in the kitchen] told Nadia ‘I must learn to make rice’.

How about pasta?
Al dente cooking is not of crucial importance. The balance between pasta and sauce is, and on this I dwell a lot.

Why is it that Italian restaurateurs don’t open in Chicago?
First of all because rent is very high here, like in Manhattan. I opened a pizzeria some time ago. It was fully booked every night, or almost, but I was forced to close because they tripled the rent from one year to the next. Large chains or international corporations take all these places. Plus there’s a question of culture.

The restaurant is on the second floor, at 980 N Michigan Avenue

The restaurant is on the second floor, at 980 N Michigan Avenue

Meaning?
Making people understand Italian high quality gastronomic culture is still a very long mission. Gabriele Bonci recently opened a pizzeria a mile from here. People are not used to that kind of offer, to pizza of a higher standard. But these openings are good because they raise the standards of Italian cuisine in Chicago.

Is there competition?
Yes, but this doesn’t discourage new openings. In fact competition stimulates confrontation, it helps you grow together with the others. For us, today, it’s not that hard because we have 33 years behind us. In America, it’s a very long time for a restaurant.

And there’s more. 
Our challenge is keeping up to date and stay fresh, give a reason for people to come back. Hospitality is everything, that’s the Italian lesson. We were at Trippa’s in Milan, a while ago: everyone was so warm. We also dined at Casadonna in Abruzzo. As soon as we arrived, Niko Romito welcomed us without knowing who we were. It made us feel important. And that night the dinner was incredible. We were the only guests, aside from another table, but this didn’t change the standard of hospitality. These are important lessons.

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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