Sunday, February 7, 2010
Bar Italia - Feeling Good Where You Are
Carolyn: Denis Franceschini is the owner of Bar Italia, a close-knit, thriving restaurant on New York City’s Upper East Side at 72nd and 2d Avenue. Before opening Bar Italia, Denis spent 20 years at Cipriani’s, eventually becoming the Executive Chef. During his career he opened 23 Cipriani restaurants all over the world, including Argentina, Uruguay, Hong Kong and London.
For the last 6 or 7 years at Cipriani, Denis cooked for anywhere from 1000 – 1400 people every day. He handled Ivana Trump’s wedding in Miami, Harvey Weinstein’s wedding in Connecticut, concert series with Marc Antony, Rod Stewart and Stevie Wonder. He also handled the all vegan menus required for Farm Sanctuary banquets held at Cipriani.
As much as Denis loved his career, he’s created something very different at Bar Italia. By design, Bar Italia is a small neighborhood eatery with an emphasis on service and customer comfort.
Denis is from the home of polenta, Borgo Valsugana in Trento, Italy between Venice and the Austrian border. Located at the foot of the Alps, Denis loved to ski and raced for 12 years. He graduated from the Culinary Institute in Lake Garda and began working for Harry’s Bar in Venice. From there he was brought to Cipriani’s in New York.
Now as a restaurant owner for the first time, Denis is learning every day.
Denis: When I used to be at Cipriani we were never chefs exposed to the public. We were very behind the scenes all the time. I learned more out of Bar Italia in 6 months than 19 years at Cipriani. Because I cook 3, 4 days a week and 3 days a week I’m spending in the dining room, so I’m still very involved in what is the preparation of the food and all. Like now, we'll go back into the kitchen to do the main prep with the guys, and then they'll do the expediting on my time. But I’m very, very involved in the kitchen as well.
When you own a place, you want to know about everything, you know. Like I’m spending an hour behind the bar with the bartender because I want to learn to do some cocktails. I consider myself the best busboy of the Upper East Side!
Carolyn: how would you define the menu at Bar Italia?
Denis: I do what I like to eat. One thing that I hate is having the menus. Because I think anyone should be able to eat whatever they please and like whenever they feel like it. And then you need certain dishes to be able to offer them, but I think the creativity, you know?
It’s easy to open a cookbook and follow a recipe to put it together. I mean, anyone can do that, you know? But you gotta put yourself on the spot, you have to put yourself on the line and say, what would I love to do? It’s very rare that a customer, my customer, orders from the menu. Because they leave it up to me and I’m not going to disappoint.
Carolyn: Denis’ priority is creating a place where people want to be. That includes himself, his family, the staff and the customers.
Denis: That’s what I think comes out, the great vibe from my staff. We all get along, we try to do things together. And we come up with new ideas together. Like yesterday was so much fun! Because we tried to put together a varied menu, doing a dish with a cocktail. I have an amazing bartender here, and creating dishes combined with a cocktail are all things to have fun, to enjoy ourselves with what we do. Especially because we spend in here what? 15, 16 hours a day we are here and we need to find a way of making these hours enjoyable, you know?
I want people to feel good when they are here.
Carolyn: Do you think that’s what sets your restaurant apart? I mean NY is full of good Italian restaurants. What would you say is different about Bar Italia?
Denis: The difference is that, if you look at this block, 77 and 78, there are 11 places where you can buy food or drinks. So it’s not about the product. It’s about how you serve the product, which is very different. I mean there are a lot of average places, a lot of average pastas, a lot of average wine, a lot of average everything. Attitude is not an average. Welcoming is not an average. There is something extra, something more, something that people appreciate. So it might be bad for me to say it, as a chef. It’s not about the product. But it is what it is. Time to face the reality of a restaurant.
Anyone can have a good plate of pasta, anywhere. In New York, believe it or not I think is a city where you eat pretty good kind of all over. There are a lot of good places around. But there are not many where you feel good where you are.
I stay 3 months, 4 months without taking a day off and some friends of mine took me out for my birthday. We went for dinner close by and after that, where did I go? I came over here. Why? Because I feel good to be here. For as much as it was 3 or 4 months that I was here every day, I came here because I feel good in here.
And that’s what I’m experiencing myself here. There is no more the Crazy Saturday or the Dead Monday. They are all steady days where my people keep coming back and coming back because they feel good where they are, you know?
Carolyn: Denis’ emphasis on a welcoming atmosphere comes from his own experience during his early years in Manhattan.
Denis: When I moved to NY, 17, 21, 22, 23, those years were so tough for me. Because not a word of English, young, no friends at all so, the loneliness that I went through myself, I really don’t wish it to anybody.
And Bar Italia for me was really about having a chance to give lonely people a chance to feel good where they are. Feel welcome, feel appreciated. Because New York, believe it or not, is full, full of lonely people. Full, too many. And you know what? It goes above and beyond how much money you can make out of it. But just to give people a chance to smile, feel good. That’s what it’s all about for me, you know?
Carolyn: Denis also has a message for the next generation of chefs.
Denis: This is the best job in the world. Dealing with people. Human contact. Come on, there is nothing best of this, you know? Hospitality. I mean, whenever you see these shows, what is it, Hell’s Kitchen? Which message do you give to the young generation? Which message are you sending to a kid who wants to get into a culinary institute, where where you spend $35,000 – $40,000 a year? No, this is the message: guys, you gotta be happy. You gotta feel like being in the kitchen for 14 hours. For as meatballs that you can make or filet mignon!
For me, life has to be a challenge; if it’s not it gets too boring, But I’m having fun at this.
Carolyn: To get an idea of the fun you can have at Bar Italia, watch the video of Leo, the bartender juggling flaming bottles behind the bar. Just go to the Links page at essenceofitaly.net and click on Essence of Italy at YouTube.
You can find Bar Italia on the web at Baritalianyc.com
This is Carolyn Masone for Essenceofitaly.net. Thanks for listening!