February 21, 2013
Fabio the celebrity chef has a photo of Fabio the supermodel on his phone.
Of course he does.
"He's one of my dearest friends in the United States," Fabio Viviani enthused about the famously beef-cakey Fabio Lanzoni while seated at the main bar of Siena Tavern while cooks behind the counter slid a succession of rolled-out dough into a large gas-powered pizza oven.
It was 10 days before the 34-year-old former "Top Chef" Fan Favorite's first Chicago restaurant would open (which it did on Saturday), and the 10,000-square-foot River North space at 51 W. Kinzie St. was bustling as servers prepared for a mock service while cooks tested out dishes. The Florence-born Viviani had been at Siena Tavern since early that morning, finally getting the pizza dough where he wanted it, but now he was scrolling through pictures on his phone, pointing out a shot of his grandpa before finding one of the long-haired supermodel beside his own scruffy-bear self on the set of his Yahoo online show "Chow Ciao!"
"We met at a party: 'Fabio'… 'Fabio,'" Viviani recalled in his enthusiastic Italian cadences. "He's on TV, I'm on TV, so this is really unusual. And he was like, 'I guess I'm not the only Fabio anymore in the United States.' I told him, 'Thanks to me, your name got a new lease on life.'"
Viviani laughed at the suggestion that the pre-existence of another famous Fabio could mess with his own branding efforts — in that anyone who knows Viviani from Bravo's "Top Chef" or his subsequent TV projects thinks of him as Fabio — but the notion of branding is no joke to the Italian chef, whose website includes separate biographies for him as "The Chef" and "The Personality."
The Personality one is longer and ends thusly:
"Fabio is building something that according to him will be 'the most honest, straight forward, people oriented brand in the USA. I wont seek to sell a product, all I want to do is for people to have an option to be able to associate themself with someone that will actually enhance their life and point them in a better direction.'"
The English may be a bit broken — Viviani didn't even speak the language when he moved from Italy to California in late 2005 — but then again it sounds authentically like him and not some slick PR prose. And the chef knows people are drawn to the Personality side of the equation.
"That's what people want to hear," Viviani said. "Sometimes I get hired to do keynote speaking about building a brand and marketing and corporate (business). It's OK. I can talk about it. All I say is the truth; it's what happened to me. If they want to pay me to hear it, hey…"
The Personality, mind you, is a big, friendly one, in person as well as on television. On a cooking-competition show where the kitchen can get a bit heated, Viviani came across as everyone's best friend, never claiming to be the most innovative chef but serving up dishes delectable enough to land him in fourth place on Season 5 of "Top Chef" (2008-09).
His Fan Favorite stature earned him an invitation to participate in "Top Chef: All Stars" two years later as well as to co-star in Bravo's "Life After Top Chef" last fall. He also appeared in ads for Domino's Pizza, launched "Chow Ciao!" (which shows Viviani demonstrating how to make such items as Easy Minestrone, Fabio's Hot Wings and Grandma's Meatloaf in less than 10 minutes), and he said he will begin shooting two family-friendly, food-related shows for networks other than Bravo later this year.
At the same time, Viviani is conscious that it's the Chef side of him that must thrive if he wants his restaurants to do the same.
"If you're coming to the restaurant because you saw me on 'Top Chef,' 'cause you hear the accent, 'cause your mom told you it's a great food, 'cause your girlfriend wants to go — it doesn't matter why you're coming," he said. "My duty is not to keep being on TV. My duty is to keep treating you well, so you're coming back even if TV is not around."
Viviani, who grew up an only child to financially challenged teenage parents, had opened multiple eateries in Florence before moving to the U.S., and he currently operates two restaurants in the Los Angeles area as well as a food-service consulting group. For his Chicago venture he is partnering with Lucas Stoioff and David Rekhson of the local DineAmic Group, which oversees the popular River North gathering spots Public House and Bull & Bear.
Viviani had already been a frequent visitor to Chicago, consulting with the north suburban-based Terlato Wines and dating a woman who lives in the Barrington area. He said he and his girlfriend were so impressed by Public House that he asked who owned it and was directed to two guys sitting in a booth. Soon they were sharing beers and, eventually, collaborating on Stoioff and Rekhson's already-in-the-works plan to open an Italian restaurant in River North.
"I feel like we've known each other forever," Viviani said. "They're good guys; we get to hang out with our girlfriends, movies. ... It's like regular human being stuff, not restaurateur stuff."
Now Viviani has essentially become a DineAmic partner for future projects being planned for Chicago, Miami and elsewhere.
"When you meet good people, you don't let them go away," Rekhson, 32, said.
Especially when such good people insist on dragging you to Italy for a two-week trip to explore the cuisine. They visited Fabio's parents and ate his mom's dishes, several of which wound up on the new restaurant's menu. They also enjoyed a memorable tavern meal in the Tuscan city of Siena.
"They kind of have an open kitchen like this," Stoioff, 31, said from a bar stool in the new restaurant, "not as industrialized, but we loved all their style. (It was) very vintage and interesting and rustic, and we thought, wow, we could take this style and Americanize it a little and industrialize it and put it in a downtown urban space, and it would really be cool. On the way back, we kept talking about 'that tavern in Siena this' and 'that tavern in Siena that,' and we ran with it."
Viviani said Siena Tavern's butternut squash tortellacci in brown butter with sage and a coccoli appetizer that we sampled — the latter a delicate, exceptionally light fritter into which you stick stracchino cheese, prosciutto di parma and truffle honey before popping it into your mouth — were directly inspired by that tavern in Siena. Six or seven more dishes were family recipes that he ordered not to be altered by the kitchen staff, including a hearty short-rib ravioli in a thick veal reduction (which DineAmic corporate chef David Blonsky brought out for tasting) as well as his mother's lasagna, which layers six or seven sheets of homemade pasta with "a really rich, earthy, red-wine infused, herb-reduction" meat sauce and a bechamel sauce.
As for the pizza, Viviani arranged for renowned Neapolitan pizza chef Antonio Esposito to fly in and fix whatever hadn't quite been working. Viviani said Esposito had them lower the oven's surface temperature to about 300 degrees while raising the air temperature to between 500 and 600 degrees so the elements would cook with the right balance in less than three minutes.
"It makes sense because you don't want the pizza to burn on the bottom," Viviani said, noting that the crust recipe remained simple: "only water, flour and salt."
He lifted a sample slice (featuring prosciutto and pear) by the crust, and it didn't sag toward the center, yet when you bit into it, it was light and chewy.
The expansive menu offers everything from salads to seafood to osso buco to a 36-ounce aged porterhouse steak for two. Siena Tavern isn't intended to be a culinary destination but rather to inspire repeat visits, to please everyone — as is its chef/host/public face, who said he'll continue to spend much time in Chicago.
"The food I do isn't meant to win TV competitions," Viviani said. "The food I do is meant to make the restaurant busy."
And the Personality, the brand, can help.
"I'm a nice guy," Viviani said. "I speak easy with everybody. I am a guarantee of quality from an honest standpoint, you know? I'm not like a Ferrari, but I'm a good, solid muscle car that is going to stay with you for a long time and won't let you down. We do good food. We please people. We're fair priced. We want to be a brand for 90 percent of America."
He added: "When I say brand ... I'm meaning a legacy. I'm trying to build a good legacy, a good name for myself, a name that when you say, 'Oh, you know what? I had an interview with Fabio. The food was all right, but he's a very nice guy. He's actually a nice guy. I hope he does well.'"
But of course.