Tomaso Maggiore opened his 12th Valley restaurant, a shiny new Italian spot, in a trendy Scottsdale strip mall earlier this fall. But while the restaurant, with its more affordable menu and relaxed atmosphere, fits well in current times, its owner longs for the days of tuxedoed waiters and salads tossed tableside.
"Young people, frankly, I feel bad for you guys," Maggiore says in a pleasant Italian accent. "Your dining is not what it used to be when I was your age. You know, it was wonderful, dressing up, going to dinner, the servers, a wonderful bottle of wine. You guys don't go for that stuff anymore. Why is that?"
With more than three decades of restaurant experience under his belt, Maggiore's earned the right to ask such things out loud. But the truth is, if you're looking for some shadow of those good old days, you'll find it at the chef's namesake restaurant.
Opened 35 years ago, Tomaso's is Maggiore's baby, the one restaurant he held onto through the decades, the recession, and the changing times. It's a classic Italian restaurant in the truest sense, a place where aging Italian waiters banter with Maggiore while getting ready for service. The menu sticks to tried and true Italian favorites such as veal osso buco alla Milanese and "Best Ever Lasagna." Men aren't required to wear jackets these days, but the cozy restaurant still retains an air of elegance inside.
Until opening Vivo in Scottsdale this September, Tomaso's was the only restaurant remaining from what once was an ever-growing Maggiore restaurant collection. At one point, in addition to Tomaso's, Maggiore owned five restaurants all located on Camelback Road. There was Maggiore on 17th and Camelback, Chianti on 40th Street, and Tomasello located east of Scottsdale Road.
"At the time, it would be called Tomaso Avenue," Maggiore says with a laugh.
These days he's got just two — his namesake restaurant in the Biltmore neighborhood and Vivo, it's younger, hipper, but still very Italian counterpart. And if you're wondering whether Maggiore still gets to spend time in the kitchen, just ask.
"All the time! Every day! That's my forte!" he'll reply.
Maggiore credits his restaurants' long-term success to his seemingly undying love for cooking. Though times and tastes have changed over the years, the chef says he'll keep cooking so long as he continues to wake up with the drive to do so.
"I have a passion for the food," Maggiore says. "My favorite saying is that one cannot think well, live well, or love well if one has not dined well."
What's your signature dish?
My signature dish is osso buck Milanese. You know what that is? Veal shank braised with veggies. It cooks for about four or five hours. You braise it, you cook it, and then you serve it over risotto rice with the same dripping and sauce as the risotto rice. Oh, my God, talk about gastronomic orgasm? That is it. And of course the other one is my ciopinno.
What's the biggest difference between your average customer today and when you first opened?
I have to say something positive about today versus when I first opened. With the overwhelming success and all these food shows on TV, people have become more aware of great recipes and food and so, therefore in that regard, now more than ever, people know when it's good or not. That part is good. But also, you know, the difference between then and now, [is that] then you could almost serve people anything and people take it on your own word what there were having. Today, you better not fool people because people do know what it is.
So, is that a good thing?
I think it's a very good thing for someone that knows the food. I remember many years ago where there was people that had some money and the first thing they wanted to do was to open a restaurant. Most of the time they then realize it takes a lot to own a restaurant. For instance, knowing how to cook! laughing And then you have to have a pretty good sense of the business also, which is the ugly part for someone like me.
Do you ever want to go back to Italy? Or retire?
Well, it's funny you bring that up. Now I have a little winery in Sicily so we produce, right now, about 8,000 cases of wine. And eventually I would like to do at least four months there [in the] summertime and the rest of the year here. I want to spend at least three or four months there. I usually go there to recharge my battery.
Do you think you'll ever get sick of being in the kitchen?
I don't see how I could ever do that. I swear to god because A. I love people. B. I love food, great food, and cooking and everything. To me the greatest satisfaction is when people tell me, you know, I cook dinner for them and they overwhelm me with compliments. That is like, instant gratitude. We have the ability in two hours, you come in, we seat you, we welcome, you order, we cook the food, we deliver it to you. Two hours to make you very happy. Think about it. It's exciting.
What's your biggest piece of advice for someone who wants to open a restaurant?
My biggest, biggest advice is make sure that you'll be able to cover everybody that works there, from bartenders to cooks and everything. Don't let them overwhelm you, them being the employees. You better know what you're doing. It's very important. Don't just open a restaurant as an investment. I would advise my worst enemy not to do that.
Do you have any regrets?
Yes, there's always one. There was one that we opened at the Esplanade, a beautiful restsaurant. It was huge. It was crazy. In order to staff that restaurant . . . I should never have got that one. But other than that, I'm happy with what I've done. There was a time when you opened restaurants and people came along and they made an offer to you to buy you out. An offer you can't refuse. laughing
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Is that hard?
To let it go? Yeah. You always think about, "Ehh I should have never let go of that one. Should I have done this? Should I have done that differently?" Of course.
What's the secret to lasting 35 years?
The secret to be successful, like I told you, you gotta have passion for your business — for this particular business, for the restaurant business. And you gotta know how to cook. My mother, god bless her, she could make a shoelace taste good. laughing You know, it's very, very important. The secret to success is give the people above what they expect. If they expect it's good, make it excellent. And when people give you accolade, don't take it for granted. Make it better next time.