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A life of hospitality with Aldo Zaninotto

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By Sophie Brochu

It’s not uncommon to find Aldo Zaninotto bussing tables in the dining room at one of his Chicago establishments. After all, the lifelong restaurateur and wine expert knows the importance of leading by example. Zaninotto learned from his father, growing up in a Brussels-based Italian restaurant. Today, Zaninotto owns three unique concepts under the A to Z Hospitality umbrella—Osteria Langhe, a cozy eatery dedicated to the traditions of Piemonte; Testaccio, its Roman counterpart; and Soif, a lounge below Testaccio inspired by Parisian wine bars. We caught up with Zaninotto to talk about neighborhood hospitality, building a successful restaurant business, restaurant expansion, and his love for Logan Square. Here are the highlights.

On growing up in restaurants

My parents had a restaurant back in Europe, so I grew up as a kid being in the kitchen, the dining room, being a busboy for my father. I later attended a program where it was school in the morning, and at night, you would be placed in restaurants. I did every level, from the dining room to the back of house. 

 

The Italian way 

When I moved to Chicago in 1994, I was able to work with a fantastic restaurant group called Carlucci Hospitality. And Carlucci was mainly focused on Italian. Now, I grew up with Italians, but I never understood what Italy really meant. I truly rediscovered my culture of Italy through wine. I understood what Italy was all about, which was regional focus.

Handmade pasta at Osteria Langhe.

 

Conceptualizing a restaurant business

I’m a culture geek. When I think of concepts, I look at what really inspires me. When we discover something, how do you get excited? Why do you get excited? You can analyze a culture, look where it started, say this is what they do, this is how they are, and how they maintain the culture. So I wanted to preserve that and bring it to Chicago. It’s basically a chance for people to say, well let’s go on a little vacation, on a little trip without leaving Chicago. This is what I do.

“You don’t get to drink wine from Tuscany if you’re in Piedmont.”

 

Early success at Osteria Langhe

When I decided to open Osteria Langhe, I knew the focus would be on showcasing wines, and the regional foods that pair with them. We don’t give the opportunity to people to have other choices. You don’t get to drink wine from Tuscany if you’re in Piedmont. This became a proven success. I work closely with my staff, train them, teach them, share my passion, share my knowledge with them. It’s been 10 years now with Osteria Langhe. I don’t think most people categorize us as Italian, but they discover something more than Italian when they get there, and it becomes a whole different experience for them.

 

Staying true to the concept

You do the best you can. You stay focused, you offer a product that makes people want to come back again. And that’s pretty much it. It all has to come together. You have to be a part of the community, to identify whoever is around you, and work along with them. At every level—this is how you set up your menu, your mission, your goals, the personality of the staff that you’re hiring. 

A busy dining room at Testaccio.

 

Expanding in the same neighborhood

The same model came with the next concept, Testaccio, which was focused on southern Italian. Opening up the restaurants so close to each other, people said, ‘Wow, the guy is crazy, he’s opening up two Italian restaurants in the same neighborhood.’ But they came around to understand the difference. One is more rustic, a little bit cozy, and the other one is more vibrant, like Rome should be.

 

Opening a third concept

And then Soif came along. Growing up in Brussels, I would go off to Paris. The French were drinking Caipirinhas and Cuba Libres. They were drinking wine in these incredible lounges. I wanted to bring that energy of Soif, to create this meeting point where you can have a cocktail in a very nice, cozy atmosphere. Feels not club-y, more lounge-y, and very relaxed, very sexy in a way. The way you feel like you’re in France, you’re transported to France.

Soif’s dimly-lit bar below Testaccio.

 

How to keep guests coming back

The food, the service, the atmosphere. These are the three elements that are really inspiring to people. I think, with the new generation today and the constant social media, people like to discover. So when people come to us, they discover something. It gives them a reason why they should come back. It’s not ‘Oh, let’s go eat. It’s let’s transport ourselves somewhere.’

 

The key to longevity in hospitality 

The lifespan of a restaurant is not really that long—because people tend to move on to other places. After 10 years, you hit it good, and if you go beyond 10 years, you’ve really made it. For me, it was very important that we have the support of the community. Starting with the staff, ensuring they have great knowledge, that they’re very friendly. Remember, appreciate customers when they come back, know what to do and make them feel welcome. Give them a reason why they should come back all the time. 

 

A love for Logan Square’s community

Logan Square is truly for me, one of these neighborhoods of Chicago that has big support from the community. My customers, I mean they know my name, they know how to reach out to me, when they don’t see me, it’s like, ‘What happened to Aldo?’ It’s good, they should remember you. It’s important that I’m there on the floor, bussing tables, pouring wines, welcoming them in, talking to them, explaining the concept, supporting everything. So that’s what I do.

“I’m there on the floor, bussing tables, pouring wines, welcoming them.”

Creating a positive work culture

I’m always in touch, my staff can reach out to me anytime. The restaurants provide a home, a family. This is the way I learned when I was back in Europe when my father had his restaurant. The staff, they were there forever. So I feel the same way, I want to be in touch. I want to know what’s going on in their life. If there’s anything I could do better for them, I will try to do my best. The people that I have at Osteria, about 65% have been there for eight years out of 10—it’s not bad at all.

 

The challenges of staffing

With Testaccio, it’s been slightly challenging, because we opened during COVID, which was a really crazy idea. We started with a younger staff and there’s a bit more of a learning curve. They’re very inspired by other things and they might come in with big expectations. I like to work with them—on the floor, I bus tables, or do silverware, or work in the kitchen or whatever I have to do is what I have to do. I want them to be proud, to see the benefits and the excitement. I try to teach that it takes a little harder work, but the money will follow. 

 

On using Tock’s reservation platform

We are Chicago, we need to support each other. Same thing with the community. We use local people, meaning we buy from farmers.This is the way they do in Italy—they work with the locals. Italian food is not complicated. You just have to use the right ingredient and do it right, that’s it. So for me, it’s a big part of it.

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Sophie Brochu is a lead copywriter at Tock and the co-owner of Brochu’s Family Tradition, a throwback restaurant in Savannah’s Starland District. Brochu’s was recently named Best New Restaurant by Bon Appétit and The New York Times.

 

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