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A Most Delicious Discussion With New York Restaurant Owner Gianfranco Sorrentino

In NewsWhistle’s weekly question-and-answer series, Clara Morgan speaks with some of her favorite influencers and finds out more about their lives and careers.

This week, Clara speaks with restaurateur Gianfranco Sorrentino, who owns New York restaurants Il Gattopardo, Mozzarella & Vino, and The Leopard at des Artistes.

Italian-born Gianfranco has been working in the restaurant industry since his first summer job at the age of 14, a career which has allowed him to travel the world while working for restaurants all over Europe and Asia.

After moving to the U.S. at the age of 30, Gianfranco quickly rose to a senior position in the New York restaurant where he was first employed. Not long after this, he took the leap to opening his first bar on the Lower East Side, and this was the start of a number of exciting ventures including the restaurant Sette MoMA at the Museum of Modern Art, which was followed by the opening of his current three New York restaurants under the Il Gattopardo Group.

When he is not working, this busy restaurateur dedicates his time to his family, which consists of wife Paula and their two children. On a day off, Gianfranco likes to take the family to their second home on Shelter Island, visit museums, watch a movie and cook for his family.

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Gianfranco Sorrentino

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1. When and how did you first get a taste for the restaurant business? Is this something that you always knew you wanted to pursue?

I started in this business when I was 14 years-old, in the summer, to pay for my studies.  My first job was in Capri, and I worked there for two seasons.  At 16, with some friends, I opened my first venture, a paninoteca (a sandwich shop) that we called KUMITE.  When I was 17, I came to understand that I like this job a lot, and it was the type of work that would allow me to travel all over. I eventually worked in England, France, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Greece, and Japan.

Then, when I was 30, I moved to the U.S.  At first, I worked as a waiter, then I became a manager, and then finally I opened my first bar on the Lower East Side, in New York City.

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2. What is the biggest challenge you have overcome professionally? How has that impacted the way you work today?

September 11, 2001.

We were supposed to open Il Gattopardo on Saturday, September 15, 2001, for a very special occasion; (my now wife) Paula and I were getting married. But you can remember what the city was like during that time; empty, and it was all a bit scary, because we did not know what was going to happen next in New York. The restaurant was ready to open, and we had already hired all the staff – everyone was on payroll and being trained. 

We had a meeting with the entire staff and I suggested to postpone the opening and see what was going to happen in the aftermath of 9/11. But all our staff proposed to open the restaurant as planned and show everybody that New Yorkers are strong and resilient.

So on September 18, 2001, we opened, and I told all my staff that they had to work for 2 people, that I wanted the front of the restaurant to always be beautiful and clean, with flowers, beautiful china and beautiful glasses, and I wanted the staff to be happy and give our guests warm, Italian hospitality. But behind the scenes we had to save on everything.

Paula was going to the flower market, and taking care of as many things as possible; the chef and I went to the fish market every night, produce market, etc. to save some money. 

We had waiters washing dishes and line cooks washing pots. We all worked incredibly hard, and in those trying times, we became like a small family. To this day, I am so proud that most of those guys still work with us!

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Il Gattopardo

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3.   You run three restaurants; Il Gattopardo, Mozzarella & Vino, and The Leopard at des Artistes.

a. How do you do it? What is a typical day like for you?

We have an incredible staff who knows exactly what to do – and they continuously help us to grow.

My typical day starts at 10:00 a.m., when I arrive at Mozzarella & Vino. I talk with the manager, check the reservations, and have my second espresso.  After that, I go to Il Gattopardo and check the reservations and assign the tables. Then, before I go up to my office, I have my third espresso.

At 12:00 noon, I am on the floor greeting the guests.  On any given day, I can walk to Mozzarella & Vino two or three times during lunch.  Between 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., I try to have all my meetings. 

Twice a week we have management meetings with all the managers (catering manager, office manager, marketing manager, restaurant managers, and the chef and sous chef).

 At 5:00 p.m. I get back to the dining room at Il Gattopardo, after which I call the Leopard and check with the manager there.

Around 7:00 p.m. I go up to the Leopard at des Artistes (I have a Vespa, so it only takes me about eight minutes to get there) and say hello to the guests and make sure everything is up to our standards. At 8:00 p.m. I head back to Mozzarella & Vino before getting back to Il Gattopardo one last time. Around 9:30 p.m. or 10:00 p.m., I go home (or sometimes to one of the restaurants) to have dinner with my family.

b. Would you recommend running several restaurants at once?

Only if you really love your job.

c. Is it difficult to find a good work/life balance as a restaurateur? Is it possible? How?

I am very lucky that my wife and I share the same passion for this job, and we run our business as a family business.  Twice a week we have dinner in our restaurants with our kids (Sophia 7 and Eduardo 13).  When Sophia comes to the restaurant, she likes to dress all in black because she wants to be a hostess, and answer the telephone and seat the guests. She already knows how to use Open Table (reservation system), and she knows everything about the coat check and table configurations.

d. What do you like to do on a day off?

The weekends are for my family. I prepare breakfast, lunch and/or dinner.  We also love to spend time at the museums, or to go see a movie.

We also have a house in Shelter Island, and we love to spend time together there.  I know I don’t spend too much time with my family, as is the case with many people in my industry, so I make sure that the time we do spend together is high-quality time.

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4.   What’s the biggest trend in the restaurant business today? And what’s the next big thing?

I finally see chefs and restaurateurs spending more time to buy great product.  Italian cuisine is a cuisine of ingredients – of authentic product – and if you don’t source the best ingredients, you cannot create authentic Italian food.  I also love the “farm to table” trend, but I am always curious which kind of farms they source their product from.

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5.   Tell us something that people do not know about you.

I am Italian!

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Mozzarella & Vine

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6.    Name your favorite: 

a. Fashion designer, artist, and architect.

Fashion designer: Sabino (my Neapolitan tailor for the past 30 years)

Artists: William Kentridge and Marina Abramovic

Architect: Rem Koolhaas

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b. Outfit.

Clothing designed by Kiton and Brunello Cucinelli.

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c. Cologne/Fragrance.

Declaration by Cartier

e. Movie.       

Il Gattopardo by Luchino Visconti

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7.  Who is your style icon? Where do you find your style inspiration?

Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.

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8.  What is your favorite restaurant in the world (apart from your own restaurants)? What is it you love about it and what is your favorite dish?

Meglio Fresco in Rome; it’s the best fish restaurant in the world. I love the fried red mulled fishbone.

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9.  Name your favorite vacation spot and hotel? What makes these places so special?

The Gran Meliá Rome Hotel, which is also the spectacular and historical Villa Agrippina, which once belonged to the Roman empress, mother of the Emperor Nero. Its rich history blends seamlessly with elegant interiors, which masterfully balance traditional luxury with a sophisticated avant-garde flair.

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10.  Which three items can you not live without?

My pasta, soccer, and museums.

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The Leopard at des Artistes

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11.   What song can you listen to on repeat? Why this particular song and artist?

“O sole mio” sung by Enrico Caruso, or Beniamino Gigli, or Mario Lanza, or Luciano Pavarotti who won the 1980 Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance.

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12.   If you could meet anyone in the world, who would you like to meet? And why?

John Lennon, because no one else could have written a song like “Imagine”; He was a genius and a great person!

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Images Courtesy of Gianfranco Sorrentino

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