There are good stereotypes and bad stereotypes. Mondello Ristorante, an Italian eatery co-founded by Jessica Iatomasi (a soon-to-be graduate of UTM’s commerce program), chef Nicola Iatomasi and manager Umberto Schifaudo, doesnt just meet the stereotype of what a good Italian restaurant should be—it surpasses it.
Named after a location in Sicily renowned for its fine restaurants, Mondello has, in less than a year, garnered a repeat clientele and raving customer reviews on restaurantica.com. Its success should inspire food lovers and potential entrepreneurs alike, especially considering it opened last summer when the recession was arguably at its worst.
“A lot of people were scaling back from going out,” recounts Jessica Iatomasi, referring to the recession. Jessica is co-manager of Mondello and wife of chef Nicola. “Gas prices had gone up and all of our deliveries had gas surcharges on them. But we survived it. And if we survived that, we can survive anything.”
Jessica attributes part of the success to the knowledge acquired in the commerce program. “That’s when UTM came in,” she says in a firm and clear voice reflective of someone who knows what she wants out of life.
“Having a handle on our costs, running a high-quality establishment, keeping ourselves organized, deciding whether to go for a partnership or a corporation, types of shareholder agreements, securing bank loans—what I learned at UTM proved enormously helpful. And it wasn’t just what I learned in the lecture halls. Many UTM professors were good enough to sit with me after class.”
Of course, smart business practices are not the only component that goes into a successful restaurant. A palatable cuisine is important too. According to restaurant manager Umberto, the Mondello team strives to emulate the Italian food culture as much as possible. Umberto was born in Sicily, a place where he maintains food is everything.
“The food [over there] is in the middle and everything is around it. Friends, family, conversations,” explains Umberto, sporting dapper dark clothes and a silk tie with a perfect Italian knot. “That’s what we bring to the table here—that sort of experience. You come in here, you’ll want to stay for two hours. You’ll never be pressured to leave.”
Umberto brings something else to the table: authenticity. In an area sprinkled with Italian restaurants which he says are not the real deal, he has everything imported straight from Italy—from the hard-to-come-by wines to the prosciutto and the parmiggiano (which unlike Canadian-made parmesan cheese, is made in the region of Parma). The rest of the food is prepared from scratch by Nicola, who after training in Liaison College, worked in everything from bars to casual dining to fine dining to hotels to catering.
“I learned a lot from the chefs I worked with,” recounts the Naples-born Nicola. “But there comes a time when you just want to have your own place, do your own thing, you know?”
Umberto too had worked everywhere and dreamed of opening a true Italian restaurant. No surprise that shortly after he and Nicola became friends, they became partners, and opened Mondello in only one month, as opposed to the usual four to five.
“They both have a lot of experience,” says Jessica. “They have seen all of the mistakes. Nicola runs the kitchen. Umberto does all of the front end, so he’s basically the face of Mondello. And I help take care of the back-end aspect of it.”
Their experience also made them aware of the risks. “The failure rate for the restaurant business is 90 per cent,” says Nicola. “But this is our passion. If you put all you got into it, you’re not going to fail.”
So far it seems they are far from failing. The team claims they have repeat customers who travel to Streetsville from Georgetown, Woodbridge, Guelph and Toronto. Some, according to Jessica, have even quit the fancy Italian restaurants in Yorkville. Many patrons return to Mondello every weekend. Some of them even reached a point where they have sampled everything on the menu. Mondello’s solution? “We came up with festivals,” says Umberto. One of the latest, dubbed Taste of the Regions of Italy, offers four mouth-watering menus with a starter, a main course and desert. Each menu runs for only $25.
Reasonable prices are at the core of Mondello’s philosophy. At a time where an average steak in a glittery restaurant can set you back $30, a bistecca at Mondello is $25-$36 if you have Menu C, which adds antipasto and rigatoni al pomodoro.
Despite the comfortable influx of regular high-end customers, Nicola makes it a point to discourage treating affluent customers better than regular ones.
“Sometimes I’d have the boss walk into the kitchen,” he says, referring to previous jobs, “and [the boss] would say, ‘Hey, I have a special customer at that table.’ And I don’t care. I think that whoever’s walking in here is making you money. So we make sure everyone at Mondello is treated the same. Doesn’t matter how much money they have.”
Jessica, whose next goal is to become a chartered accountant (she jokes that Nicola won’t even let her in the kitchen anyway) hopes that Mondello inspires students: “You can do it, you can accomplish your dream. Don’t let things weigh you down. Just don’t do it for the wrong reasons. Don’t do it for greed.”
Sounds a bit romantic. But then so would the idea of getting together with your husband and opening a restaurant in the midst of a recession. Sipping delicious espresso at Mondello, you too would be tempted towards romanticism.