Before Tony and Cathy Mantuano became the dynamic husband-and-wife team behind perhaps Chicago’s premier Italian restaurant they were mere underlings in the city’s dining scene.
In the early ‘80s, Tony – now the chef and partner at Spiaggia – worked in the Gold Coast kitchen of Pronto, whose chefs made pasta in the front window in full view of the street. Cathy – now a much sought-after expert on food and wine pairings – was a waitress at the nearby Chestnut Grill.
That particular spot was owned by restaurateurs Larry and Mark Levy; their mother, Eadie, was the restaurant’s hostess. “I used to talk to her about my fiancé all the time – we’re getting married and we’re going to Italy and he’s such a great cook,” Cathy recalled.
So when the Levys started eyeing a lot at the corner of Oak Street and Michigan Avenue with plans to open a first-rate Italian restaurant, they turned to the young Mantuanos.
There was just one catch: The new restaurant would likely not open for another year. So the Levys asked: Did Tony and Cathy want to spend that year cooking in Italy?
“It was basically, ‘I’ll pay all your bills and you go work in Italy,’” Tony recalled. As you might imagine, their answer was an enthusiastic yes. But at the time it was not such an obvious choice. “Now it’s so common,” Tony said. “Everyone wants to go do a stage in Europe.” But back then, they were the only Americans they knew of working in the kitchens of Italy’s best restaurants.
In the audio above, Tony and Cathy share what they learned on their Italian gap-year. For starters, many of the Michelin starred places where they worked were doing food farm-to-table before the term was ever popular – or omnipresent – in the states.
Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Tony and Cathy Mantuano spoke at an event presented by Chicago Public Library in December of 2011. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.