In the week that San Carlo restaurant group opens its second London branch of Cicchetti, its 16th restaurant overall in the UK, Neil Gerrard talks to managing director Marcello Distefano about the new site and his plans for the Cicchetti brand
Quite often when people talk about attention to detail, you get the feeling it is just words. But that's hardly an accusation you could level at San Carlo restaurant group. By the time you read this, the business should have opened its second Cicchetti restaurant in London, on Covent Garden's Wellington Street.
It was originally scheduled for the middle of September. Why the delay? Well, founder Carlo Distefano and his son Marcello, the managing director, sent the marble destined for the new site back because it wasn't quite the same grain as the marble in their existing Piccadilly Cicchetti.
Other than that, the process of opening the new venture, with the help of Aldo Zilli, who acts as an ambassador for the Cicchetti brand, has been pretty smooth.
"We are quite particular about things like that," says Marcello. "So we had to reject it."
It is an attitude that has served the business well over the years. Founded in 1992 by Carlo, the business has grown gradually with well-respected restaurants in major cities across the UK under a variety of different brands, including the original San Carlo format.
Meanwhile, there are also international franchise operations with restaurants in Kuwait and Bangkok under the Signor Sassi brand (the original Signor Sassi is across the road from Harrod's in Knightsbridge), and a Cicchetti, also in Bangkok.
The new Covent Garden site will be the third Cicchetti in the UK and the fourth internationally, and it is brands like this and Fumo - similar to Cicchetti but with an emphasis on premium cocktails and other drinks - where Marcello can see a lot of the future growth.
"When Cicchetti originated it was an experiment," he explains. "We always had this fixation with San Carlo that we needed 4,000-5,000 sq ft sites, but we were seeing a lot of sites, particularly in London, that were less than that. We realised that Cicchetti gave us much more flexibility as a business and now, in the past three or four years, all our focus has been around Cicchetti."
Experiment it may have been, but it is one that has worked, and there is now a strategy for growth in place, something that Marcello indicates the business never really had when it came to the original San Carlo format, preferring a more organic approach. The business has been looking at outside finance to partner with to make the strategy a reality.
That strategy is likely to focus around London, but it all depends on the availability of sites, and this is where that attention to detail comes in once again.
"We want to grow Cicchetti but it has to be at a controlled rate," says Marcello. "We are not going to give ourselves a target where we say
we need to open up three sites next year only to discover that we can't find the sites. I'd rather wait than put up with second-rate sites."
For two years, celebrity chef Aldo Zilli, who has known San Carlo founder Carlo Distefano for three decades, has been acting as a consultant and ambassador for the Cicchetti brand. He tells Neil Gerrard about his experiences working for the business.
How have you found your role working at Cicchetti since you started two years ago?
It is a genius idea, I think. Carlo and I have known each other for 30 years and it was only a matter of time before we worked together. The day I sold my restaurants and turned my back on Soho after 38 years, I felt a bit strange walking down the road.
I saw Cicchetti in Piccadilly and I bumped into Carlo and the rest is history. We started working together and we are a family. I love the family, the fun, the travel.
What is it like working with Carlo?
He is the most hyperactive 70-year-old I have met, and when we meet it is like a fire. He has created a lot and Marcello has learnt from that. Marcello doesn't realise it, but he is really similar to his dad. We deal with each other every day and we talk wherever we are in the world
and we create things that other companies can only dream of.
The new Cicchetti is in Covent Garden, where you used to run a restaurant. What is it like to return there?
It feels different because Covent Garden has changed, but I love London, I love people, and I love to be where people are. I am not just a chef in the kitchen; I like running restaurants. I ran seven of my own. Covent Garden brings you all that - it has an element of theatre, tourism and
a lot of regular business.
San Carlo Restaurant Group's UK sites
•Temple Street, Birmingham
•44 Corn Street, Bristol
•6-7 South Parade, Leeds
•38-40 Granby Street, Leicester
•41 Castle Street, Liverpool
•King St West, Manchester
â¢ Ground Floor, House of Fraser, Manchester
•215 Piccadilly, London
•Wellington Street, London
â¢ 1 Waterloo Street, Birmingham
•One St Peter's Square, Manchester (opening late 2014)
San Carlo Fiorentina
â¢ Manchester Airport, Marriott hotel, Hale Road
San Carlo Bottega
San Carlo Farmacia del Dolce
Le Petit Rouge
â¢ 38a Granby Street, Leicester
•60 Street Lane, Roundhay, Leeds
â¢ Knightsbridge Green, London