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Alberto Lombardi, Italian pride of the restaurant industry in the USA. The Interview.

alberto-lombardiAlberto Lombardi was born in Forlì, and he is one of the pioneers of Italian Restaurants in Texas. In 1977 he opened his first restaurant in Dallas and today his company counts more than 14 restaurants in the United States, specifically in Texas, Nevada, Georgia and California, as well as one in Mexico.

During his successful career, he opened more than 25 restaurants and he is considered an icon in the restaurant industry of the Lone Star State. His restaurants are regarded as gastronomical salons for sophisticated palates and some, in particular, are intimate luxurious environments where you can relax enjoying a flute of Champagne.

His brands include Taverna Pizzeria and Risotteria (Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and Houston, TX, Atlanta, GA, Long Beach, CA and Akumal, Mexico); Penne Pomodoro (Dallas); Toulouse Café and Bar (Dallas, Houston and Austin); Sangria Tapas y Bar (Dallas); La Fiorentina Tuscan Grill (Dallas), Bistro 31, 31 Lounge (Dallas) and Lombardi Romagna Mia (Las Vegas, NV). Very soon Kai Asian Bistrò (Dallas) will be added to the growing list.

We meet him in his corporate headquarters in Dallas which immediately impress us for the familiar atmosphere. We are greeted with a big smile, as only an Italian can, and as we enjoy authentic espresso and cantucci biscotti, we begin our interview.

lombardi-family-concepts-catering-albertoYou left Italy at a very young age to venture into a field that was new for you at the time. Could you please tell us how it all began?

Like all teenagers, I had many secret dreams and wanted to change my life. Forlì was too small for my ambitions. Indeed, I begin dreaming of establishing myself in the restaurant business, already in my teenage years.

If I were to describe my childhood with a movie, it would definitely be “Cinema Paradiso”. My father was a construction worker and my mother a housekeeper. Our apartment had 2 rooms, the kitchen and the bedroom. Fortunately, this very simple life was also accompanied by beautiful summers passed in my grandfather’s country house, a house imprinted in my heart that had been passed down from generation to generation since the 13th century. When I was young, my parents decided to register me for Seminary. That was the worst choice they could have made for me. After only 3 years I left the Seminary, and at the age of 17 I left my parents’ house and my hometown, Forlì. From that moment, I started wondering around the world. First in Germany, then in Belgium where I lived for 3 years, starting with the most humble working tasks, which, however, allowed me to become the person I am today. After my stay in Belgium, I decided to work on luxury cruise ships, but I soon realized it was not for me. In 1973, the cruise ship I was working on docked in Miami, and there I stayed. For a while, I worked at a restaurant whose owners I had met in Belgium. Then I was offered a job at the Fairmont Dallas, and soon after, became the Director of the renowned Venetian Room. The rest is history, with the successful start of Lombardi Family Concepts.

lombardi-tavernaYour best known brands are Toulouse and Taverna. How did your passion for French cuisine start?

My passion for French cuisine and French Bistros began when I was living in Belgium. Hence my desire to bring a touch of European authenticity to a country filled with replicas that do not represent us adequately. When you enter Toulouse, you think you are in France. The atmosphere, the furniture and decors, the lighting, the patio and the music…a perfect mix that provides the restaurant with a unique atmosphere, a winning combination of food and venue. For example, our Michelin Star French Chef in Houston, Emmanuel Hodencq, or the Chef in charge of our restaurants in Dallas and the kitchen brigade, Yoann Lardeaux, are our greatest guarantee of quality and authenticity, without renouncing the touch of creativity that makes our dishes and restaurants, unique. The Toulouse brand can already be found in Dallas and Houston, and by the end of October we will open a new location inside “The Domain”, Austin’s famous high-end mall.

hodenqTaverna and its unbeatable cappelletti romagnoli could lead people to think that it offers cuisine from the region of Emilia-Romagna, but that’s not the case. Your menu is designed to satisfy all tastes and represents the Italian regional cuisines best known abroad. Can you explain how you tailor your menus for each restaurant?

Taverna, is my greatest love! Taverna is much more than a restaurant. Taverna is home, it’s family. It’s a restaurant where people eat without feeling they ever left home. This is why our menu offering is vast and designed to satisfy everyone’s taste, by representing almost all Italian regional cuisines. Risotto from Lombardy, caponata from Sicily, cioppino from Tuscany, and of course, my unbeatable cappelletti romagnoli, a family recipe from Emilia-Romagna, passed down from generation to generation.

SONY DSCTaverna is a mix of traditions, culture and food. It’s an experience that must be lived to fully understand its spirit. There is attention to every detail, even the typical tablecloths of the “trattorie” of my beloved Romagna.

You have argued that the key to your success are your employees. Among them, are people who have been working for you for more than 20 years. From the Vice President of Operations, Robert Clayton, to Chefs and waiters. This is very rare in this sector, especially in the USA. What is your secret?

Respect! I treat my staff with respect and I never miss out on an opportunity to thank them for their dedication and professionalism. I’ve been lucky to meet wonderful people who embraced my entrepreneurial projects as if they were their own. And this does make a difference. In addition, I am also privileged to have my daughters and my wife, who are actively committed to the success of the company and allow me to travel and visit all my restaurants often. It’s important for me to establish a direct relationship with my clients and employees throughout the country. All this makes me feel alive and gives me the strength and desire to continue to move forward.

But we know that the key of your success is the atmosphere and hospitality of your restaurants. Your philosophy is that your client should live an experience that includes the food, along with the intrinsic traditions and culture that come with each dish. What is the main characteristic that your employees must have?

They should smile, be polite and welcoming but most of all, knowledgeable. We invest a lot in our employees’ training, because it is very difficult to find, locally, knowledge of, and expertise in European cuisine. Our waiters must know each and every ingredient of our dishes, as well as the best wine pairings. Our managers are client-oriented and are focused on offering an exemplary customer experience, making the clients feel pampered and irreplaceable. My philosophy has always been that the popularity of a restaurant is created by the personnel. The food is secondary.

After what you shared with us, do you still have secret dreams?

Absolutely, I never stop dreaming! I travel a lot, and I gather new ideas from all that is original, and then I add my personal touch. I previously mentioned Toulouse and Taverna which are only two of my company’s brands. The others include Bistrò 31, Lounge 31, Penne Pomodoro, Romagna Mia, and very soon, Kai Asian Bistrò, a sophisticated and elegant restaurant concept with Open Wok kitchen.

At the end of our interview, Mr. Lombardi invited us to visit Taverna-Dallas, located just one block from the corporate headquarters. He opened the doors of his restaurant and stopped at every table, greeting his clients with a disarming smile. “Good morning, how are you today? Thank you for being here.” That’s when we understood what the real key to his success is: making his customers feel uniquely welcomed and important. Good job Alberto!

Tiziana Ciacciofera Triolo for SgG International

Proofreading : Kelly Ann Larkin

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