Tony Mantuano’s Spiaggia gets makeover

Written By As told to mike Thomas, staff Reporter Posted: 03/03/2014, 12:02pm
Array Chef Tony Mantuano stands in what was the old dinning room of Spiaggia restaurant on Friday, February, 14, 2014. Spiaggia is currently undergoing a redesign to time with the restaurant's 30th anniversary and is slated to open this spring. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media

Coasting and sameness makes me crazy. This is a different kind of crazy.

We’re starting over [at Spiaggia]. We’re taking a big gamble, but it’s something I believe is the right thing to do. It was more about what feels right than anything else.

We have a great, loyal clientele, but we also want to appeal to more than that loyal clientele. We want to appeal to younger people.

We’re not going to have a jacket requirement anymore. That’s the first time in 30 years. It became too much of a burden in this day and age. It’s from another era.

For someone who’s Italian and lives in Italy, you always look good. But you can look good in jeans and a sweater. You don’t have to have a jacket on. It’s just being comfortable in your skin and feeling confident about it and really never looking like you’re sweating.

I’m a big [Ermenegildo] Zegna fan. Italian suits fit you like a second skin. I’m happy to travel in an Italian suit. It’s like pajamas, almost, with better form.

I think that’s probably the new Spiaggia: It’s a Zegna suit with an open collar, and the shirt’s not tucked.

The last couple of years are some of the best years we’ve ever had. But is that because I was on TV? Is that because the Obamas ate here and we became known as the place [to eat]? There’s a lot of things that could have puffed up that perception.

This period right now, it’s been pretty challenging to manage the stress and to sleep right.

Luckily, there’s a treadmill a minute from my bedroom. It’s my new friend. And it’s really amazing how it changes everything. I feel really good when I do that five, six days a week.

You never know how much you eat, because you’re tasting here, tasting there. “Chef, taste this.” And at the end of the day, I have no idea how much I ate! But if I wrote it down, it’s probably like a five-course meal twice a day. It’s crazy!

We have a little restaurant in Kenosha [Wis.], too, called Mangia [Trattoria]. And until my father passed away two years ago, he was there every single day. He didn’t work. He had lunch. And he sat at the same table. And if anyone came into that restaurant that he didn’t know, he’d call them over to the table or he’d go over to their table and ask them who they were and how they liked the restaurant. It was amazing to watch him. We used to joke all the time how shy he was.

My dad used to eat in Spiaggia all the time. He’s the most critical person I’ve ever cooked for.

There were some things I could never get right for him. Ever. Like baccala [salt cod], for instance. There’s a dish he grew up with, that his mother made. So we’d always make baccala during the holidays and it was never right.

It was like a Siskel-Ebert thing [laughs and gives thumbs-down sign]. I’m like, “There’s nothing wrong with it!” He goes, “Nope.”

My mom is very reserved, very quiet. She’d scold him for being too hard. I think I’m more like her temperament-wise.

I do have a temper, but it takes a really long time. People that have known me for 10 years can probably count three or four times that I really got angry. But they don’t forget it [laughs].

Kenosha, where I grew up, had a grocery store — Mantuano Food Shop — in a section where there were a lot of Italians.

Everything we did was about food. My grandmother cooked the most unbelievable gnocchi that I ever tried.

When I became serious about being a chef, I would spend more time with her with a notebook. But that was later, after I realized I didn’t want to be a music major anymore [Mantuano played the trombone].

I never finished college. I was a music major and cooking in restaurants. A line cook. I did it all, man.

When you’re young, you want to do so many things. You want to put so many ingredients on the plate. You want to play as many notes as you possibly can. You want to show off. And it doesn’t work for what we do [now].

I think minimalism is really what we’re all about. I’m not Miles Davis. It’s not about how many notes I play. It’s about the right notes.


Twitter: @MikeTScribe

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