Best Practices: How the 'Mom and Dad' of Chicago’s Restaurant Scene Have Rebooted in Nashville

Cathy and Tony Mantuano on how to stay married as a restaurant couple, why you should let your most talented staff leave the nest, and why Southerners will always order the bone-in veal chop. 

Tony and Cathy Montuano
Photo: Haas & Haas Photography

Editor's note: The news can weigh heavily on all of us during these strange days, including small business owners and employees whose jobs have been altered by the pandemic. We could all use a little inspiration and light. That's why we've launched Best Practices, a new column for F&W Pro, to share how leaders are facing unprecedented challenges head on during the pandemic while still growing personally and professionally.

For more than three decades at Spiaggia in Chicago, Cathy Mantuano curated the wine cellar and the restaurant's 700-bottle list, while her husband Tony Mantuano helmed the kitchen. Together, they created a new standard for what a fine-dining Italian restaurant in America could be.

They also became known for cultivating talent. Few restaurants have a family tree like Spiaggia or alumni like Missy Robbins, (BNC class of 2010) chef-owner of Lilia and Misi in Brooklyn; Sarah Grueneberg, chef-owner of Monteverde in Chicago; and Joe Flamm, the Season 16 Top Chef winner, who will open a new Croatian-American restaurant in Chicago this year.

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I met the Mantuanos in Italy in the fall of 2019 during the filming of the Top Chef Season 17 finale. It was a coda to their Chicago years and a research trip of sorts for Yolan, the swanky Italian restaurant in Nashville they opened several months later in Nashville. "It's hard to leave [Spiaggia], but we gave a lot, and now was time to let that child go on its way," Tony said. "And it was time for mom and dad to find something new to do."

Their second act, a partnership with The Pizzuti Companies who developed The Joseph Hotel in Nashville (Yolan sits on the ground floor), became an opportunity to start from scratch in a new city and train a new team from the ground up during the COVID-19 era.

I've edited this interview for clarity but left it intentionally long because the Mantuanos have a lot of important wisdom to impart.

Was it hard to say goodbye to Spiaggia and Chicago?

Tony: It definitely was hard just to say goodbye to all our friends and family.

I just feel like we needed a new act. We had done what we'd done there and then we'd accomplished what we accomplished. We were looking for a new challenge. We gave the majority of our life years to a place and are still really proud of what we did there. So, it was hard to leave, but we gave a lot, and now it's time to let that child go on its way. It was time for mom and dad to find something new to do.

Cathy: Mom and dad.

The great thing about Spiaggia, too, is we met so many wonderful people. We worked with so many great people now doing their own things, and that's really beautiful to see. And we learned a lot. So that part is very rewarding.

Tony: I think what helped us with the break was going to Italy and doing Top Chef [Season 17 finale]. We spent some time there for a couple months hanging out and just sort of decompressing. Knowing that we were going to do something new, knowing that it wasn't going to be permanent helped with the transition for us.

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What from that trip wove itself onto your menu at Yolan?

Tony: In Milan we probably tried more different veal called Cotoletta alla Milanese than anything. We were on the search for the perfect veal chop made in that style of Milan, and that's one of our number one selling dishes here. It sort of transcends Italy in a way. Almost every country has a pounded breaded cutlet of some sort. The difference in Milan is they leave the bone in, and it seems the South easily understands that as well.

The South is definitely a more of a bone-in kind of place. Cathy, your wine team knows how to tell the stories of the wines on your list. How do you train your sommeliers? What are you looking for in that storytelling to a guest?

Cathy: We always talk about the people behind the wines. The winemakers, the families, how long they've been in business. A great thing about Spiaggia was we were the first restaurant to have an all-Italian wine list in Chicago. So when the Italians would come to the States, they would always come to see us because they thought that was just the coolest thing. So we made a lot of friendships with winemakers and wineries, and that's been really wonderful.

For example, there's a great winery near Tuscany on the coast of Maremma called Tenuta di Ghizzano and the owner is a woman named Ginevra Pesciolini Venerosi and she is amazing. She and her sister took over for their father, and she's done all these organic and biodynamic things. They also grow other crops like spelt, and they make great olive oil. And so there's a really fun story and talking about her and how I've gotten to know her over the years.

You always try to capitalize on those kinds of stories for all of our guests.

Tony: Nashville is definitely a red wine drinking town. All year round.

Are you selling a lot of the Sangiovese?

Cathy: Yeah. But a lot of Nebbiolo too. Barolo. We try to get them to drink stuff from Campania like Aglianico. That's been really fun, turning people on to different grapes that they never tried before.

Tony: Nashville gets it. The people get it. One of the things we wanted to make sure we had in the agreement with [Yolan's owners, The Pizzuti Companies] is we always want to have two or three somms on the floor. Always. You don't sell the amount of wine that we sell here if it's just left up to a server.

Tony, how do you translate your passion for a dish like the veal chop to your team?

Tony: You tell the story of how this is a dish of Milan. It's challenging to make it perfect because of course that bone is a lot thicker where the meat hits the bone, so you've got to be really careful cooking it. The step we take to give it even another layer of flavor by cooking it in a wood-burning oven, which adds a little smokiness to it.

One of the things that is just incredible to watch is the kids that started here, they're so confident now that they've been armed with this information and they've learned how to tell stories. They're part of it. They get excited about it. The transformation has been incredible from the first day of training to today. The confidence level.

Did you have to train the Nashville cooks and servers and wine folks differently than in Chicago?

Tony: It's funny, we've attracted a lot of cooks and servers that worked in other cities, too. People who say, "It was time for me to get out of New York, Chicago, Denver." A lot of them knew about what we had done in the past and were wanting to be part of the team. But at the same time, there's people that have only worked at Olive Garden before, but yet have a desire to grow and learn. So for Cathy and I, it's always been, how do you get experienced if you've never worked in a place? This whole idea of saying you need two years minimum of fine dining before we even look at you is a little [unreasonable] because they've got to start somewhere. You have to have an eye for someone who is really interested in learning. Someone who has the aptitude to learn and really gets excited by it. That's more Nashville than Chicago, I would say.

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Cathy: We've also had some people who left Nashville and have come back. They're happy to see a restaurant like Yolan, because they had experienced more outside of Nashville and said, "This is really something I want to be a part of because this is something Nashville needs. There's nothing like it here." That was really cool to hear. We're really lucky. We have a lot of very passionate people that really care a lot and work really hard and love what we're doing. So it's been really, really rewarding.

Tony: Recently I've started to get a couple of days off in a row. [The staff] is like, "Where've you been? We miss you." They're really surprised that we're there so much. But I think that's helped just make them feel confident and always being there, you're able to correct things on the fly and work on certain things.

Cathy: It was great to have this new project because everyone starts over at the same place. To give the staff all of our attention and then talk about ideas with managers. When you have an existing business and you're working and hiring new staff, I think sometimes it's much more of a challenge because you're pulled in so many directions, just trying to run your business.

I think we were able to really give so much more of our attention because we had to. We had to start from square one with everyone, and that part was fun.

I'm thinking about the amazing talent you've trained like Joe Flamm and Missy Robbins and Sarah Grueneberg. What does that mean to you to have a family tree from Spiaggia out there opening their own restaurants?

Tony: I'm incredibly proud of that, and I really feel like we have a friendship. I mean, between Missy and I, and Joe and I, or Sarah, we still talk a lot. I'm very proud of what they've accomplished. Missy is like a superstar now. When I first talked to her she was working in New York City. She had this Italian soul and she wanted to do Italian. Coming to Chicago allowed her to grow.

Once we've established this connection, what Italian food is about, and you get what we're trying to do at the level we're trying to do it at, then your influence on the menu starts to grow. And I think people need that opportunity. You can keep doing the same old classics year after year and the same food, never changing. But our philosophy has always been that we need to continue to change. The guests that came to Spiaggia 35 years ago probably aren't coming anymore; they don't make up the majority of the diners. You have to incorporate some fresher ideas. That's where Missy, Sarah, and Joe would get their opportunity to put their stamp on the menu.

It's a philosophy that was a bit daring. It's like a band playing the old hits over and over again, sooner or later, you don't become popular anymore. So it was important to me to let that process grow with them because they're from different generations. They have different tastes, just like our dining public. They want new things. We kept a lot of the old stuff, too, just to make sure longtime guests were satisfied, but you've got to keep evolving and they were part of the evolution process. That's what gives them the confidence, and that's why we've had that successful family tree.

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Cathy: Also, you lose talent if you don't let them flex their muscles and contribute.

Tony: Well, you lose them anyway.

Cathy : Well, yeah, but you lose them faster.

When somebody comes to you that you've trained and that you've come to love, when they're ready to fly out of the nest, what are those conversations like?

Tony : You can sort of tell it's coming. But you keep hoping it gets delayed. We've always been supportive of people moving on. I mean, Joe Flamm is opening a new restaurant [Rose Mary] in Chicago in the spring.

To me it's more gratifying to let them move on than to try to keep them there and see them unhappy. They're driven people when they come to you. They're driven to do more, to be more. And so you know that day is coming.

We have a lot of people in our audience who are either new small business owners or they're looking for a business partner to open up their second place. What kind of advice can you give them based on this partnership that you've set up with The Pizzuti Companies? What kind of conversation do you have with a new business partner, as you're beginning to think whether or not you're going to say yes?

Cathy : I don't think it's all about the money. It's about what you can do. I mean, money certainly is important, but I think the biggest understanding you have to come to how you want your ideas and your time to be used within the new project like this. For us, that was the most important thing. We didn't want to fall into sort of this sort of typical structure of, "Okay, you're the chef. You have to report to the food and beverage manager every time you want to change a dish." We didn't want all the rules. We basically said, "Well, this is what we want to do."

Tony: The developers are from Columbus, Ohio, and they basically courted us and we spent a lot of time getting to know them and making sure this felt right to us. There were a lot of dinners and wine and just making sure we're all aligned on this and that they understood. It was like a personal connection before we even talked about money. And the financial deal and the way things are set up, that talk came later.

It's the same thing when you talk about the people that you hire. Whether it's any person that works for you, like, "Do I want to have a conversation with this person? If I'm a guest, do I really want to listen to what they have to say?" And I think the same thing is true when you're looking at partners, like, "Do I want to spend as much time with this person as I'm going to spend with my spouse or my children." That's an important question to ask yourself. But if you are dreading having to speak to them or there's no connection, it's never going to work out. It'll come back and bite you.

We all had to agree on what our role was going to be. [Cathy and I] are our own entity, or we basically have our own company. And we work for you, the developer, not the management company.

You've gone through this big move and transition. COVID-19 is ever present, what are some of the things that you each do to take care of yourselves as you're spending such long hours on the floor and creating this brand new restaurant?

Tony : That's been a really huge focus and it's there all the time. There isn't a moment that we don't think about safety. There isn't a moment that we don't talk to our associates about safety, about it to our guests. Every single thing we do and how many times we sanitize and how many times we wash our hands, how many times you've been telling someone, "Make sure your mask is covering your nose." And even guests now, we ask guests to please put your mask on when an associate approaches your table.

For Cathy and I, it's been trying to get the exercise that we need. We don't go out. That's why I think we don't know Nashville that well, because we don't go out. We either eat [at Yolan] or we eat at home.

Cathy: At work, if we are talking to associates, we don't hang out together for more than 10 minutes, if even five. Everyone is conscious. We make that conscious effort to keep distance.

Tony : Now, on the line when you're cooking and you're close to each other for longer periods of time [it's more difficult]. But you really need to avoid like, say, what you need to say to the guy next to him, the person next to you, and then put your mask over your nose again if they can't hear you.

Working together for as long as you two have, how do you maintain longevity in this business partnership as husband and wife? Are there any secrets to that?

Cathy: Well, it's good that we're in different areas of the restaurant. We always joke that I could never make it in the back of the house, and I tease Tony that he couldn't make it in front of the house. So we bring our expertise and our specialties to create a wonderful experience together. And that's how we look at it.

Tony : Sense of humor, I think. Not taking yourself or the other person too seriously.

Cathy : We like each other. That helps.

Any rules at home about what stays at work?

Tony: It's more of a time limit thing. It's like, "Okay, we've talked about this for five minutes now. That's it. No more." And then if it somehow creeps back in your conversation later, it's just like, "We had an agreement."

A lot of those conversations tend to spring up when you get home at night and have a glass of wine. Five minutes and then let's move on. And that's really important. And that person that you've been with all this time doesn't want to see the bitchy side of you. You know? It's like, they're going to get tired of you. And I'm talking about me, not you, of course.

Cathy : You sure?

Tony: It's not fair to them. They need to see the smile and stuff. So, it's just like stop bitching.

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