How Chicago's Best Italian Restaurant Keeps Growing

Spiaggia chef Tony Mantuano on how to cook traditional while keeping it fresh.

June 03, 2010, 3:42 PM

June 4, 2010 — -- Pop quiz: You've just been elected president and want to take your spouse out for a nice celebration dinner. You need a restaurant that's up to the occasion. You happen to be from Chicago. Where do you go?

For Barack Obama, the answer was Spiaggia, chef Tony Mantuano's institution of fine Italian dining on the city's Magnificent Mile. One of the (future) first couple's longtime favorites, the restaurant occupies a lakefront perch downtown and boasts views of Lake Michigan to justify its name, which means "beach" in Italian.

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Spiaggia is many things to Mantuano, whom the president has called his favorite chef. It is a monument to the cuisine of his Italian grandparents, who ran a grocery store in Kenosha, Wis., and who would feed Mantuano as a boy on his way home from school. It is a professional cornerstone, with a fabled reputation stretching back nearly three decades. And it is a work in progress: Spiaggia changes its offerings in line with new ingredients and styles of Italian cuisine as they emerge, Mantuano said.

"I've been cooking for a long time, but I'm still as excited today as I was 30 years ago," Mantuano said. "There's so many ingredients that are becoming available -- I think you do always have to change. I wouldn't want to eat my food from 20 years ago; it'd be sort of boring.

"So you do really have to see what's going on. That's why going to Italy, going to Europe, you see what other people are doing, and that was the basis of what Spiaggia became about. We wanted to direct import those flavors. ... We wanted to go right there, we wanted to learn about it, we wanted to find out how we could get that product or that individual style or technique, and import it directly to Spiaggia. And I think that's been one of the keys to our success of being open 26 years."

Before opening Spiaggia in 1984, Mantuano worked in multiple top restaurants in Italy, including Dal Pescatore, which boasts three Michelin stars. He was named a Food & Wine "Best New Chef" in 1986 and almost 20 years later, in 2005, the James Beard Foundation named him "Best Chef: Midwest." Mantuano runs Mangia Trattoria in his hometown of Kenosha and is the chef-partner of Terzo Piano at new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. His publications include "The Spiaggia Cookbook" and "Wine Bar Food," which he co-authored with wife, Cathy.

Mantuano described growing up in an Italian community in Kenosha, Wisconsin, about an hour north of Chicago.

"It's a town where there were a lot of Italian immigrants, and a lot of Italian immigrants from the south. In the old days, there was a Simmons mattress factory. So somebody would come from Calabria --the region where my grandparents are from --they'd establish a toehold, a foothold in Kenosha and then they would send for relatives.

"And pretty soon you had this community of probably 50, 60,000 people that might have been almost 50 percent Italian immigrants. So there was a strong Italian neighborhood there. And my grandparents had the main mom-and-pop grocery store there in Kenosha that served the immigrants, so it was always a part of my life, after school, stopping by their store."

Tony Mantuano: My Grandmother's Cooking

On the road to becoming a chef, Mantuano benefited fantastically, he said, from lessons gleaned in his Italian grandmother's kitchen.

"And my grandmother was the best cook ever. I mean, her gnocchi, all her fresh pastas, everything she made or -- she'd make a sauce with pork neck-bones with tomato that I would look forward to. And it's still a flavor that I can't get out of the mind, even after all these years.

"I think my grandmother had the biggest effect on me. It just -- how she had very few ingredients to work with. They were also ingredients that weren't expensive ingredients, but she coaxed such incredible flavor out of these -- I mean, pork neck-bones. This is a flavor I still to this day love, so that ability to do that, to get huge, bold flavors out of very inexpensive pieces of meat. ...

"They had a huge garden! My grandfather had a garden. When I was small it felt like I was in Jack and the Beanstalk land, so it was incredible. So you had those vegetables which he grew, and he had this philosophy where the biggest plants, he would keep the seeds from the fruit or the vegetable from that plant and that is what he would plant the following year. ... So the combination of those vegetables and her ability to coax the most flavor out of those vegetables, it was a great. I mean, every Sunday, every holiday, that's where we spent our time."

Mantuano said Christmas Eve at his grandmother's house meant mountains of seafood -- and bedful of fresh pasta.

"It just seemed natural that you couldn't put your coats on their bed, because it was covered with the bedspread covered with pasta. So it was just normal. You walk in the bedroom and there is the pasta laying out to dry on the bed."

Mantuano's father worked in the meat-packing business. His mother was a stay-at-home mom. For the young boy, heaven was hanging around his grandmother, watching her cook. But it took him a while to catch on to the idea of going into cooking himself. At first he thought he might be a musician.

"At a young age, I didn't really know. I knew I was fat. I stayed in the kitchen," Mantuano said. "I knew I liked what was going on, but I was really into music. And I started going to music concerts. When I went to college, I went for music, I was a music major at the University College of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. So I was playing in everything, from symphony to jazz band. I was even in a 70s horn band that played Chicago and Blood, Sweat, and Tears and all that.

"But I found as I was going to college that I started working in kitchens and there was a certain point -- after three or four years of working in kitchens -- I just sort of dropped out of college and started working in kitchens full-time. At that point, I was lucky enough to work for a European chef, who happened to be Swiss. I stayed with him for like five years and just worked with him in Milwaukee, learning the basics, learning everything and being fascinated again by these ingredients that I'd never seen before.

"It went from traditional Grandma inexpensive ingredients -- now all of a sudden, we're working with langoustinos that are imported from Europe. And I learned a lot from him."

Tony Mantuano: Up the Ranks

The chef found that he had natural facility for cooking, and quickly advanced up the ranks.

"In Milwaukee, after three or four years I was basically running that kitchen, from never having worked in restaurants before. No formal training, so I knew that I was good. I mean those were days when those restaurants were really, really busy, five, 600 covers a night. The rockstar position in those kitchens was working the sauté station. So as the lead sauté cook I knew I had what it takes -- but I knew I wanted something else.

"My first job outside of Milwaukee was at a restaurant in Chicago, an Italian restaurant in Chicago. ...There was an Italian chef, an Italian-American chef who had been there for a long time at this restaurant. and the owner of the restaurant hired me. I'd been there for about two weeks, and the chef was taking a vacation. So as soon as the chef left for vacation, the owner brought me into his office and said, 'Oh, by the way, I really like what I see, so when the chef comes back, I'm actually going to fire him and you're going to be the chef.' And it was like a total shock!"

Mantuano didn't get into the details of his face-off with the fired chef. He said he simply made changes that were obvious to him -- as difficult as they may have been for the rest of the restaurant to accept.

"It was obvious when I was in the kitchen that things were really sliding," he said. "You know, you have all the veal scaloppini for the night being sautéed ahead of service, and [there] being mounds and mounds of veal scaloppini, I'm like, 'This can't be the way it is in restaurants, we can surely cook this to order, can't we?' And so as soon as [the chef] left, it actually gave me the freedom to make those changes.

"And you know, you're working with cooks who have been doing it for a long time and they're like, 'Are you crazy? Who is this young guy?' You know, I mean, we've done it this way for years -- why are you changing it? Slowly we changed it, and I really felt like this was a great opportunity. Really, it was --I could do what I wanted, I could make the changes I wanted. And the people came."

The new chef's mastery of the kitchen would not be clinched, however, without a further confrontation.

"Not only did you have to get the cooks to believe in what you were doing and the changes you were trying to implement, but you also had to convince the front of the house -- the waiters, the dining room manager," Mantuano said. "And you know, the dining room manager-- the maître d'--was like this 60-year-old Italian who, you know, it was his room, he was the authority. He ruled the kitchen even as well. At some point -- and I found myself one night, and I'm sort of a mild-mannered guy. I mean it takes a lot to get me really angry, but I found myself after a few weeks of working with this maître d' holding a knife and shaking it in his face, you know, 'This is my kitchen!'

"I was like, 'Did I really do that?' But it worked! It worked. He stayed on, it was like this new respect. He didn't bother me anymore."

A little bit of a struggle, Mantuano said, can bode well for any enterprise.

"The biggest changes from that time to today really has been that the chefs have ... worked long enough where the critics, the food writers, the kitchen staff, the front of the house, everybody really respects chefs a lot more today. Chefs have a few more cards than they had back then, so it's a little bit easier. But yeah, I mean, you really do have to struggle. It's like wine -- the best wine is made from grapes that struggle. It's not an easy thing to do."

The best advice he could give a young chef, Mantuano said, is to spend time training in Europe.

"I think that was one of the keys to my career, was having lived in Italy and having worked in the best restaurants in Italy," he said. "I mean working in two- and three-starred Michelin restaurants in Italy, I mean that is huge. To this day, I draw on that more than anything.

"I really love working with young people. ... I mean, we're about Italian culture, we're about Italian cuisine -- so I really enjoy working with people who are out of culinary school, who really show up passion for Italian food. That to me is -- and to see them fall in love with Italian food and want to go to Italy to work and want to go spend their vacation time in Italy, that's very rewarding for me."

Tony Mantuano: Family Partnership

Mantuano and wife Cathy have been married 28 years. The couple has one son, Carlo, 17. The three make trips to visit relatives in Wisconsin, and to check in on Mangia, the family restaurant Mantuano's sister runs in Kenosha.

"I do cooking classes [at Mangia] all the time," Mantuano said. "We go back to Wisconsin for holidays. And my wife's family is from Wisconsin -- we actually met in that first restaurant that I worked in, when we were both going to college and she was actually a waitress and I was a cook all those years ago.

"I think working together, we're able to spend more time together than a lot of couples. But a lot of couples can't work together either -- they would like strangle each other. But we get along, we get along really well. I mean, we go back to Italy as often as we can, and her family is also from Italy.

"Last year, the town where her grandparents came from, invited us to the town and gave us the keys to the city as being ambassadors of Italian cuisine and culture in America. It was like the coolest thing. Her relatives were there and people were crying, but it was one of those things I'll never forget."

Mantuano drew a comparison between the culinary arts and other fine modes of expression.

"I think for me food is about the best ingredients," he said. "I think that I get excited about cooking something -- whether it's at home or at one of the restaurants -- if that ingredient is unbelievable... At our restaurant Terzo Piano at the Art Institute in Chicago, we did a cooking class ... inspired by Matisse. ... One of the guest lecturers for the museum also spoke to the class about Matisse, and one of the things she said sort of struck me. She said what Matisse thought was that the quality of the color was what made quantity.

"And I thought that's like for food, it's the same thing. It's like if that ingredient is really incredible, that's where the quantity is -- and you don't have to do a lot to it. If the color is an incredible blue, that's what made that painting so incredible."

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