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Fresh Food &: Authenticity to Boot

Italian restaurants have dotted the American landscape for years. But as quickly as they crop up, do these eateries yield the same finely crafted cuisines as Italy?

Il Fornaio, a Corte Madera, Calif.-based restaurant chain, claims it not only serves authentic Italian food but also educates its staff and guests on the different regions of Italy. "Our mission is to provide our guests with the most authentic Italian experience outside Italy," says Maurizio Mazzon, the Venice-born vice president and executive chef of Il Fornaio. "The food, the quality, the chefs - our authenticity is what makes us different."

Il Fornaio, which translates to mean "the baker," offers special menus featuring a different region of Italy each month.

"Italy is made up of 20 regions," Mazzon says. "Every city you go to is different - different dialects, different foods, different wines. I have thousands of recipes and we're continuously teaching our chefs. This is like a cooking school. No one else is doing this. It doesn't exist."

While many of Il Fornaio's 22 locations have chefs who are Italian, a few of the chefs are not. However, all are eager to learn the regional cuisines of Italy,

Mazzon says. Each year, Mazzon takes chefs and managers on a two-week tour of the best restaurants in Italy, "so they understand our tradition of hospitality," he says. "People play the highest role in our company. We have the right people and the teaching. That's not just the chefs, that's the staff too."

A staff like this is not easy to come by, Mazzon notes, nor are the high-quality ingredients required to maintain the menu's authenticity. That's why Il Fornaio expands very carefully.

"We're highly selective," says Craig Michel, vice president of real estate and development. "We're doing only four restaurants this year. Next year we'll do only five or six and we'll continue that slower growth rate. We feel that's important to maintain the quality of our food and service."

Il Fornaio's expansion strategy is to develop in one or two new areas of the country each year. The company is developing the Southeast market, following Il Fornaio's Atlanta debut last year. Michel is also searching for a site in the Midwest. And the company will continue to backfill in areas where it already has restaurants until the area is perceived to be full.

In assessing possible restaurant locations, Michel looks for 8,000 sq. ft. with an additional 1,500 sq. ft. of patio. The sites need a service-receiving area and 500 sq. ft. of storage. "It has to be covered and lockable," Michel says with a laugh. "We use a high-quality hardwood for our wood burning ovens, and people tend to walk away with it if it's left out in the open."

The company prefers to locate next to restaurants that are attracting its same customers, Michel says. "We create synergy that way. People won't eat Italian every day, they won't eat fish every day, they won't eat Chinese every day, but they tend to come to that location for lunch or dinner."

While the right location is Michel's challenge, Mazzon's biggest hurdle is good produce. "The other food," Mazzon says, "is coming from Italy. I make those deals directly: olive oil, pasta, prosciutto, black and green olives and aged Italian cheese. So many produce companies cannot reach our standards. I tell them, 'Don't bring me your No. 2 garlic, no No. 2 red tomatoes. I don't want No. 2.' I tell them, 'Bring me only No. 1.'"

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