Industry Insiders: Alessandro Bandini, Scuderia’s Front Man
If you’ve ever visited New York Italian restaurant powerhouse Da Silvano, you’ve probably rubbed elbows and shared a laugh with manager Alessandro Bandini. The gregarious Florentine has put in his time in kitchens and dining rooms at Italian restos around the world, and he’s recently invested his wealth of knowledge in new project Scuderia. Situated across the street from Bar Pitti and Da Silvano on Sixth Avenue, the modern, fresh trattoria serves delectable Italian comfort food in an open, casual environment. We met with Bandini at the new spot and chatted about the menu’s influences, why women love Italian, and the legendary Da Silvano/Bar Pitti feud.
How did the idea for Scuderia come about? We started to think about the possibility of taking over this place because we thought that the location is great, and we have a beautiful sidewalk. The choice fell also because this is our turf. I’ve been working at Da Silvano for 11 years, and I know the people. So Leyla, Fabrizio, Silvano, and myself decided to make a young restaurant with moderate prices, Italian comfort food, to attract neighborhood people and young people in an economy like this. We wanted to compete with maybe Bar Pitti or Lupa, or Morandi, and do something more affordable and younger, that doesn’t have to compete with Silvano. The initial idea was always to do something for everybody. We planned to be open for breakfast from the beginning, but we haven’t done it yet because we want to first concentrate on lunch and then progressively add more and more. We’ve been averaging 200 people a day since we opened so we think it’s working.
Describe the clientele. Many, many ladies come here. Maybe 70%. The female customers love meatballs and pizza. They definitely love fish and the whole fishes like the branzino. We host a lot of large parties with many, many ladies. We love it.
Why do you think you get so many women? I don’t know. I think that the place is kind of — I don’t really like to use this adjective, but — sexy. Since it was designed partially by Leyla, it has a female touch. I also think it’s because of the pricing. On ladies night, the ladies may not want to spend too much. Maybe I’m wrong, but if you go to a nice restaurant, usually it’s the man that takes the tab.
The cuisine is Italian comfort food? We decided to concentrate on what we know about Italian food, which is based on simplicity, first with fresh ingredients, and using the staples like pizza, pasta, and sandwiches with a little twist. We’re using seasonal ingredients and concentrating on what people really like. I love the Ceviche au Scallops. We do some unusual pizza with bleu cheese, speck, and fig jam. In general, people come here and they eat richly.
What are the Florentine and Tuscan touches on the menu? The Tuscan touch is the use of olive oil and the use of game, rosemary, and fresh herbs. It’s also seen in the simplicity of the preparation. There is a fusion of Northern Italian bistro foods with an eye to the American palate. We have a burger made of brisket of beef, so it’s very fatty and juicy. We have staples, like pesto made like they do in Genoa with stringbeans and potatoes. We also have lasagna; a Bolognese dish.
Locally grown products as well? Yes. For instance, now ramps are in season; we use them. Fidela ferns are in season; we use them. Fava beans are in season; we use them. We’ve been serving, when it’s available, local Atlantic sardines, as opposed to sardines from Portugal. Whatever the market offers; we use it — especially in the daily specials.
What happened with your chef, Claudio Cristofoli? Claudio has been, like, a little disappointment because I thought he didn’t believe in the project as much as we tried to make him believe in the project because we have ideas of expansion. If this goes well we would like to replicate the brand. So he could have been part of something greater if he only was a little bit more patient. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.
And do you have ideas for a replacement? We’re evaluating people now. I’m in charge of the back of the house. I try to work with the strong guys that I have, which are very good executors of our menu, which I almost completely designed with Silvano. So it’s not difficult. You don’t need really a metagalactic chef to execute our menu. We just need someone organized.
You have a long history with Silvano. How did you cross paths in the beginning? Silvano used to go to hotel school in Florence with my parents in the 60s. I came here for the first time in 1990 on vacation, and I met Silvano then. I worked for him for a week as a cashier, just to make a couple of extra bucks, and I really liked what he was doing as a host-chef. He inspired me. When I came back to the states in 1996, I started working as a waiter at Da Silvano to make some money. It’s an amazing place, with an amazing clientele — celebrities, beautiful people, beautiful customers — in a trattoria setting. That was the magic about Da Silvano. For 11 years, I worked as a manager there.
How are people in this neighborhood reacting to Scuderia? We have many, many people from the neighborhood. Many curious people wander over from Bar Pitti and Da Silvano. People really like the atmosphere. People also organize little private events in our mezzanine in the back. And now we have this beautiful sidewalk that is really wide and surrounded by trees. I think the place has all the cards. We have a full bar, and so, lots of potential. I think it’s going to be a promising, good summer
How does Scuderia change the neighborhood restaurant dynamic? Are you attracting clientele from Bar Pitti? I think that it would be pretentious to believe that we could steal customers from such an established place like Bar Pitti, but I have noticed Bar Pitti clients and customers coming here. I believe that this place is definitely more fun than Bar Pitti. The food is really good, and we are definitely improving. But Bar Pitti has an amazing amount of regulars that it has built over the years. I see people crossing the street when they have to wait too long. So, instead of having 50 people waiting at Bar Pitti, now they may have 25 because people come here. We are good enough, and we have a young, fun wait staff. The service has been defined as breezy, warm, and friendly. That’s the idea that we want to impose. The food is tasty, but the environment is really nice. The place is very airy with high ceilings.
Is it true that Giovanni Tognozzi from Bar Pitti chased you down 6th Avenue last year? Yeah, it’s true. And it’s funny, really. You should laugh at these things. And I did. I don’t hate Giovanni. I think that Giovanni is a great worker and, unfortunately, I got caught in between him and Silvano. They’ve had this feudal relationship, and it’s a little silly because they’re both making money off each other. You put two Italians — two Tuscans — ten feet away from each other, and it’s not an easy task to keep them calm and quiet. If you know Tuscan people, they’re very argumentative and opinionated, and that’s what created this feud. I got caught in between because I was Silvano’s manager and Giovanni first threw me out of the restaurant and told me I wasn’t welcome in 2004. Last year, I accidentally entered Bar Pitti. I saw an old friend I hadn’t seen in awhile, I went into the terrace, not even inside. I was talking to my friend for less than a minute. Then I left and I didn’t notice Giovanni, so he came after me, around the corner, chasing me. And he told me if I ever, ever tried that again he was gonna have someone shave my head. I wanted to see if you can really do that sort of thing in 2008, without having consequences. I called the police and I went in front of the restaurant and tried to stir the waters a little bit. I kept asking, “Can he do that?” Because I never ever hurt the guy in any way.
Any other stories of the feud? Giovanni threw Fabrizio [Sotti], our partner, out after he was spending tons of money at Bar Pitti. He used to go between Da Silvano and Bar Pitti all the time. Once he found out that Fabrizio would be a partner here with me and Silvano, he kicked him out. It was done ungracefully — he kicked him out in the middle of a meal. Giovanni is a little rough around the edges. He has a few problems. Every single employee at Bar Pitti is forbidden to go to Da Silvano, even in their private life. They will face consequences from Giovanni. They can’t wave or say hello to anyone at Da Silvano. On our side, this feud doesn’t exist. People who work here are free to do whatever they want. Giovanni really wants to keep the feud going. I know friends of Giovanni who are looking for jobs who found out that Silvano was involved at Scuderia, and cannot apply here because they would lose Giovanni’s friendship. I always ask, “Does he pay your rent?”
Who else does it right? I love Al di Là Trattoria in Park Slope. It’s a Venetian trattoria. The menu is small, but has exceptional staples. I like Blue Ribbon Sushi, Aquagrill, and almost anything in this neighborhood.