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What I’m proposing here is a concept for a real theme restaurant. That is to say to give your customers the chance to step into another time and place for the duration of their meal. The interior decoration, the staff’s uniforms and even the menu will all contribute. What you’re going to offer is so original and of such wide appeal, your restaurant is bound to attract all sorts of clients.
The world of the mafia is without a doubt one which fascinates a lot of people. The amount of books, films and TV series devoted to the mafia are too numerous to mention. Certain pizzerias have more or less exploited the theme, rather poorly. I started with the idea the mafia is southern Italy and Sicily… but not only. The mafia is also the USA. And so it’s an Italian-American restaurant which is at the heart of this concept. This will allow us to show for more originality and to strike much harder than the average pizzeria whose idea of marketing is to give its pizzas and (lousy) frozen lasagna gangster’s names.
What we’re going to do is dig much deeper and offer something for better. There are pizzerias on every street corner in the western world so we might as well offer an alternative. While putting together this concept, one of the most interesting conclusions of my studies was to discover just how versatile and easily adaptable it is. You could just as easily open this restaurant in a large or medium town-centre as on the outskirts and perhaps even in a small country town providing it disposes of a 50,000 inhabitant catchment area or is a well-visited tourist attraction. There are also several possibilities when calculating the size which will seat between 70 and 120.
An entrepreneur who has the means to do so could even have his restaurant built with its own private car park and indeed might even envisage creating a chain of restaurants. If you are running a struggling restaurant, this concept would be an excellent way to relaunch. Whichever your case, ensure you have plenty of parking around your restaurant.
When equipping your kitchen I can’t think of anything beyond the usual material, perhaps an extra oven and a professional grill and neither will break the bank.
Your front window-frame will ideally be made of dark wood with curtains hanging from brass or copper rods to shield the bottom two-thirds of the window from prying eyes…
The decoration will require a little more effort. I can picture walls of red brick and dark wooden flooring. Ideally you’ll have a high ceiling from which you can hang vintage lighting. However the lighting must remain dim, more so than in other restaurants, but not so dark your diners have the impression they’re in a catacomb! The inevitable red and white check tablecloths with big white napkins will help set the scene. What you can do without is the dusty, empty bottle of Chianti often used to decorate. The mural decoration is where you can really make an impact. Hang up lots of black and white photos of famous Mafiosi whether they be real or fictitious, photos of Sicily and Naples, old photos of the streets of New York and Chicago (photos of the little Italy quarter are a must), fac-simile of newspaper headlines describing gory news stories related to the mafia.
You could also exhibit replicas of the legendary guns which are closely linked to the image we have of the mafia. You can order these on the internet at a reasonable price. To make things easier for you, here’s a list of the models you’re looking for:
-Thompson m1928 submachine guns with drum
-colt revolvers 1911 model, preferably nickel-platy
-UZI submachine guns, with folding butt stock and if you find a model with a silencer, all the better.
-Ingram Mac 10 submachine guns with silencers
-Kalashnikov ak47 semi-automatic assault rifles with folding butt stock
-some coach guns which will represent the old Sicilian lupara, a type of sawn-off shotgun associated with Cosa Nostra
-a few 20th century guns, if possible a Smith and Wesson “military and police”. You could also include a few colt cobras or pythons.
And you can go even further in creating the right atmosphere. Your waiting staffs also have a part to play. They will be dressed up in baggy trousers, waistcoats and peaked caps which are all typical prohibition era attire. The customers will be greeted by Al Capone himself, decked out in a double-breasted suit with black or anthracite stripes, black laced up brogues, a black shirt and a wide yellow tie, not forgetting a trilby in a lighter color and the indispensable red flower in his buttonhole.
To complete the picture you’ll play the soundtracks from movies and TV series about the mafia, just the sort of background music that will transport your customers back in time to the world you have created. And that is the very reason why they will come to dine in your restaurant.
All too often when restaurants are devoted to a theme, their weakness lies in the mediocrity of their menu and their cuisine. This won’t be your case. Your menu will be purpose full, attractive and striking; your customer’s loyalty is at stake. Each section of your menu will adhere to the Italian-American theme. You could have great fun naming each of your starters, main courses and desserts after either a famous Mafioso or policeman or the names of the well-known quarters of New York and Chicago, the towns and villages of Sicily and don’t forget to name two of dishes Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
In this sort of restaurant which aims at a broad clientele, the starters are not the most important part of the menu. Not only are you not setting up a gastronomic restaurant but you’ll also find that you’ll sell more main course + dessert (or at lunchtime, main course+ coffee). However, that is not to say you should neglect your starter menu. You could propose:
-caesar salad, perhaps 2 or 3 versions
-caprese salad (ie the famous combination of tomato and mozzarella)
-garlic bread, typically Italian-American
-a nice selection of antipasti
-a selection of good quality pork meats/cured ham, not forgetting slices of spicy napolitan salami
-caponata, especially in summer-time
-arancini (very Sicilian)
-prawns roasted with almonds and pistachios (again, Sicilian in origin)
-and finally, albeit less authentic: fried onion rings, chicken wings, jalapeños pimentos stuffed with cheese and deep-fried (you can buy these frozen, they’re easy to prepare and are always a big success)
Of course, all of the above are only suggestions, feel free to change or add on whatever you like. I’m not a franchiser and therefore I’m not imposing anything and I’m well aware that we often have to adapt to constraints and if, for example, you don’t have enough qualified kitchen staff then you may have to leave out a few of my more elaborate suggestions.
Now for the main courses. The scope is very large and will confirm the Italian-American identity of your cuisine. There are 3 different categories, so 3 groups of suggestions… and indeed 3 times more possibilities to satisfy your customers and therefore you are 3 times more likely, to bring them back to your restaurant!
The first category is one which will really surprise you. It is, however, the most important point of this concept, so if it doesn’t suit you the best thing to do is to move directly on to another concept! I’m talking about offering your customers a range of generous, deep-pan American-style pizzas. And you’re going to aim for making the best. As I’ve already mentioned, traditional pizzerias are two a penny but really good American pizza is very hard to find outside the US. Speaking as a Parisian Frenchman, I would guess that there are only 2 or 3 places which sell decent American pizza in the entire area of Paris and its outer suburbs, an area with 12 million inhabitants. Now, there’s a real opening!
Deep-pan pizza is typical of the city of Chicago and since we are opening a mafia-themed Italian-American restaurant, well, we simply have to serve it.
Now let’s talk about the technique. This deep-pan pizza has a lot going for it. You don’t need to have a special pizza oven because it cooks at a lower temperature. Furthermore, it’s easier to prepare because you can line the tin with pizza dough, garnish it with a first layer of cheese, followed by a layer of tomato sauce and then pre cook it. Then set aside until needed. The cook needs only to finish putting on the toppings, depending on which pizza has been ordered and pop it back in the oven. In fact, this pizza is far easier to make than traditional pizza- not everyone can master the art of pizzaiolo! Sometimes deep-pan pizza is served in a traditional earthenware dish but that’s not easy to serve from so make your life easier and stick to spring form pans.
Choose at least 2 different pan sizes, one individual size and one that can be shared by two as a main course or by several as a starter. Regarding the pizza dough itself, there are two recipes; one includes milk, the other doesn’t. try out both recipes and it’s up to you which one you want to use.
Now for the toppings. When it comes to American pizza, the absolute star of the show is pepperoni, a spicy beef and pork sausage. I seem to recall that over three-quarters of all pizza eaten in the US include it! You’ll find this typically American dry sausage in restaurant food suppliers (only). Above all, don’t replace it with chorizo which is entirely different.
The most traditional version of American pizza is as follows:
On top of the pre-cooked base I described earlier, place slices of pepperoni, smoked sausage, mushrooms and sometimes pre-cooked diced bell peppers, with a final layer of cheese on top.
You could also propose a Hawaiian version with thick cubes of smoked ham and pineapple rings, then a second layer of cheese. You could also make a chili con carne pizza, again with a second layer of cheese. How about a chicken-pepperoni pizza, a four-cheese pizza (use cheddar too) and for those who don’t eat pork, a chicken/mushroom/cheese pizza. Be creative, invent your own combinations. Remember: if your pizzas are good, people will come from far and wide to eat them.
Now for the second category of main courses: the meat dishes. Propose 2 or 3 sorts of grilled meat, not forgetting the inevitable T-bone steak. All will be served with fries, potato wedges or baked potatoes and a choice of the usual condiments and sauces. As American as can be, you’ll propose four sorts of hamburgers: a classic hamburger, a cheeseburger, a bacon cheeseburger and a more Italian version using mozzarella, preserved tomatoes (confites) and wafer-thin slices of Italian cured ham.
As a tribute to the very Italian-American Lieutenant Colombo, who arrested more than one Mafioso, you’ll serve his favorite dish, chili con carne. If home-made, don’t forget that any chili worth is salt has a short of bourbon in it to enhance the flavors. On a more Italian note, you’ll do honor to the veal recipes and the cuisine of the Southern boot of Italy with piccatas, cooked with either lemon or marsala (marsala is Sicilian).
Now for the third category of main courses: pasta dishes. The hardest part for me was to put together an original selection of dishes while still adhering to our theme. Let me explain. I ought to suggest recipes that banish pesto, Bolognese sauce, carbonara or gorgonzola not only because these dishes are woefully banal but also because they have nothing whatsoever to do with the south of Italy and even less with America! Perhaps, the one exception you can make to this strict geographic rule is a dish of lasagna, providing they are home-made.
If there are a few dishes that I consider essential, there are only two I would qualify as obligatory:
Firstly, the traditionally American macaroni cheese, with cheddar and bacon, served in individual gratin dishes.
Secondly, linguini alle vongole (clams) which is very representative of southern Italian cuisine.
Having applied myself to reviewing Sicilian, Sardinian and Napolitan cuisine, in the end it was in the far reaches of my memory that I found how you can make a real difference to your pasta menu and guarantee success. I remembered a friend of Egyptian origin who owned some pizzerias and who used a recipe he had learned while working in Italy: pasta in a cartoccio ie pasta cooked in a papillote, a foil parcel! The pasta is truly delicious cooked this way, it’s spectacular and is always served piping hot. Traditionally the parcels are made from tin foil but as this was considered a health hazard, you can now easily find special foil suitable for contact with food and for cooking in. You simply fold the foil into either a gondola shaped tent or a cushion shape. Let me give you some Southern Italian inspired ideas for your cartoccio.
-orrechiette pasta with sausage meat
-spaghetti with seafood
-fettucine with lobster
-tagliatelli in a norma sauce (using aubergines)
-maltagliati with fresh sardines, fennel, pinenuts and raisins
-penne with napolitan polpettes (meatballs)
-napolitan style ravioli
-casareccia with sausage and mushrooms
-buccatini a l’amatriciana (a pasta sauce using pork cheek, pecorino and tomatoes)
Seven or eight pasta dishes will be enough considering the variety and scope of the rest of your menu.
The dessert menu will be, of course, Italian-American, and it doesn’t come any easier than that. Cheese-cake, brownies, pecan pie, tiramisu, panna cotta, the choice is vast. Buy them ready-made but find good quality produce. I might add that the excellent key-lime pie would be a huge success if you can find it. An absolute must are the Sicilian cannolis which you’ll buy empty and then fill with praline, pistachio or marsala cream. Cannolis were Lucky Luciano’s favourite dessert and Don Vito Corleone adored the pistachio flavoured ones.
You’ll propose a wide variety of ice-cream and don’t forget the cassata and the lemon granite, both the pride of all Sicilian ice cream makers.
When it comes to beverages, take no chances, stick to your theme. A part from the usual aperitifs, think prohibition and propose several quality bourbons or rye such as Jim Beam, wild Turkey or Buffalo Trace, better and more authentic than the Four Roses or Jack Daniels usually inflicted on us. You could also propose a few cocktails of American or Italian inspiration, but keep the prices reasonable and you’ll attract a young festive crowd in the evenings. I’m already dreaming of a Manhattan, a nice Americano or a Negroni or why not a Tom Collins ? And I’m sure my wife would die for one of your Bellinis… When choosing wine, give preference to Italian. Choose carefully, try to avoid the usual nasty stuff served in pizzerias and beware of the cost. Italian wines are often expensive and your clientele, who is similar to a steakhouse/carvery clientele, won’t buy a bottle of wine that costs seven times more than his main-course even if it is a bottle of the best Barolo.
As it happens, the best value for money is found in the south of Italy. I’m not crazy about Californian wine but there’s nothing to stop you from stocking it and indeed feel free to select whichever wine you like. In keeping with the American theme, you’ll have to sell beer. American beer is not my favorite, Italian beer even less. The only American beer I like is Miller’s. I suggest you have 3 draft beers that can be sold by the pitcher or glass. Beside Miller’s, perhaps the Canadian Labatt’s and a Mexican beer. You’ll stock a few other bottled beers, including a couple of Italian ones. When selecting your soft drinks, remember to include Italian mineral water and San Pellegrino bitters. Classic or light cola, sprite or seven up could be served in pitchers or in bottles. Don’t forget to stock bottles of Dr Pepper and ginger ale (such as Canada Dry, the ad for which was directly inspired by the untouchables). So there you have a very striking menu but to ensure it reaches its potential, keep a close eye on the quality of your produce and be reasonable in your pricing policy. Keep a close eye too on the average price in your market niche, both a lunch-time and in the evening, and stay within that bracket.
Now let’s talk about your opening advertising and what often works best is distribution of publicity leaflets to letter-boxes through-out your catchment area 3 times over a two three month period.
I suggest you have your leaflet printed in the form of a small newspaper, 4 pages in black and white. The startling headline “the mafia has arrived!” will be followed by a short article printed in the old-fashioned font used by the American press. You could print a photo of a man dressed like the Al Capone who greets your customers. Inside your newspaper you’ll have information of a more reassuring nature: your menu, photos of your restaurant, opening hours, your location and, very importantly, a special opening offer.
This concept has taken ma a long time to put together and write but I believe it is sufficiently detailed for you to be able to open up and run your business.
One last piece of advice: when your business is booming, please take your book-keeping seriously so you don’t end up like Al Capone who went down for tax evasion!