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Published 9/19/2007

Joe Vicari opened the first Andiamo in 1990 at 14 Mile and Van Dyke roads. Today, the family-run operation has 10 restaurants, all Italian, but all different, and scattered throughout the metro Detroit area. Another is scheduled to open soon in Livonia at 7 Mile Road and I-275.

METRO TIMES: How did this all start? Wasn't Aldo Ottaviani involved?

JOE VICARI: I had been in the restaurant business part time, mostly as an investor, when I bought the 14 Mile location. Suddenly I was in the business full time. Our success was getting chef Aldo (Ottaviani) — who had his restaurant, Aldo's, for 40 years — out of retirement. I went to his house to meet him. I said to him, "Mr. Aldo, I went to your restaurant. It was great. I'm thinking about buying this restaurant. Would you consider coming over to help?" He said that he had been to the restaurant, and even though it was busy, the food wasn't very good. He said that he would come and help me for a month. He's been with me for 18 years. He's still a very active driving force. He and I still do the menus. He's 85 years old and still sharp as a tack. He has customers that will come in and request something that was on his menu 20 years ago, and he'll make it. He travels to the different restaurants, but he's usually there from 11 o'clock to 3 o'clock. He goes in the back to check the sauces and the soups and the produce that comes in. He makes recommendations that all of the chefs respect. Initially he treated me like a son. Now I feel like I've adopted him. He spends holidays with my family. I talk to him on a daily basis. He doesn't drive anymore, but we have driver for him to take him wherever he wants to go.

One of the things that we got from Aldo, from his 40 or 50 years of being in the restaurant business, for example, is our gnocchi which is light and airy. He said that it took him 25 years to find the right flour to use. Another thing is that when you're cooking octopus, you put wine corks inside the water that it's boiling in and it tenderizes.

MT: How do you compare your restaurants to others in town?

Vicari: We are a little frustrated that some people tend to think of us as a chain. In fact, all of our restaurants are different. The decors are different and our chefs have the ability to create daily specials and soups. Our restaurants get their due, that is, the satisfaction of our customers coming back, but we don't get the accolades which we should in my mind. Some of the independents like Bacco, and I'm not knocking it, it's a great restaurant and Luciano's a great chef and a friend of mine. I could take any one of my five or six top chefs and we could do exactly the same, as good as he does. We do do that. If you came in and wanted osso buco here, you could get it. The difference is it's $28 on our menu and it might be $45 on his. There's no difference in the product. We're very traditional because of maybe chef Aldo and his tradition. We're talking about redoing our menus. Somebody asked if we should keep veal Parmesan on the menu. I said yeah, it's Italian. According to Aldo, some of the nouvelle Italian restaurants around the country ignore pairing foods. For example, would you put alfalfa sprouts on a hamburger? No, it's a way of throwing a concoction together and calling it nouvelle cuisine. It's going to give you agida — in Italian it's an upset stomach. He says that his recipes date back to the Roman Empire, very classic, traditional recipes. We make lasagna, all the things that are comfort foods. I was talking to my chefs today and we are going to put sea bass on the menu. I had guys give me five different great recipes for it. We can do that too, but as Joe Falls, the old sportswriter, told me — he loved Aldo — wherever he traveled, all over the United States, he would go to an Italian restaurant and order spaghetti with meat sauce. "If that's good, everything else is good on that menu." We've always kept that on our menu.

MT: We're in a city where the economy is taking a toll on so many restaurants, and we're hearing rumors of pending failures, yet you keep opening new restaurants. What do you attribute that success to?

Vicari: Stupidity. (laughs) This is the first year in our existence that we're down a little, but we have opened three restaurants in the last three years and we're about to open another in Livonia. We think it's a great area — there's lots of competition there, but we think we'll fit in and Andiamo customers will be well served.

MT: Would you consider expansion to other states?

Vicari: We've had offers to do that. Somebody called me yesterday and asked if he could pick my brain, "How do you go from one to two or two to three?" I guess I would like to pick somebody's brain. I actually asked someone last week to set up a meeting with someone like Cameron Mitchell who has several different restaurants in different cities so I could ask how do you get to the next state. I'm a hands-on owner. I try to get to all my restaurants at least once a week. My only challenge is how do you do like seven in Florida, how do you control it?

Jeff Broder does this monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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