Tony May (President - GRI Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani)

Lo status symbol americano? Mangiare all’italiana

Apr 12, 2013 7343 ITA ENG

Mr. May, you are the owner of one of the most famous Italian reataurants in New York, SD26. Please tell us something about your achievements and how you helped in changing the perception of Italian cuisine in America.

When I came to America in 1963 I found a cuisine I did not recognize and sometimes a language I did not understand. Italian cuisine was still known as Eyetalian, the ultimate comfort food: “Good, Plentiful and Cheap”. I promised myself that something would have to be done about it. So In 1979 I founded the Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani (GRI), where I am still President nowadays. In 1984 with the GRI I established the Catherine De Medici Restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America, while in 1991 we founded the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreign Professionals in Piedmont. While on the Board of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, the school built the Colavita Center for Italian food and wine in 2001. Finally, in 2004 I founded the Italian Culinary Foundation, to achieve teaching programs in the Culinary Institutions throughout America. I think that the best way to change the old perception of Italian Cuisine is through education: that is why I founded these institutions encouraging programs aimed at the new generation of professionals, and that is why I am committed to promote the Italian cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America, and to make the Colavita Center for Italian food and wine to become the point of reference for Italian cuisine in America.

What are the history and the goal of Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani – Leading Italian Restaurants in America, and how does it work?

Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani is a not-for-profit association dedicated to achieve better understanding of the Italian food and wine products and its cuisine.

Over the years, it has grown to include students and food enthusiasts ensure that people’s love for Italian cuisine in the United States remains strong for generations to come. Today we are the only restaurant association in the United States dedicated to preserving the gift of Italian Cuisine: a community of consumers, restaurants and corporations that are passionate about Italian cuisine, products and wines. We build relationships between food connoisseurs and experts.
GRI was founded by a small group of influential Italian restaurateurs and now is one of the most respected culinary associations in the food industry. It has made exemplary strides in enhancing people’s perception of and passion for Italian food and wine throughout the hospitality industry.

Over the years we achieved several milestones. We founded the GRI/Giacomo Bologna Scholarship that provides deserving culinary students advanced study in Italy each year. We yearly organize a trip to a different Italian region to educate our members and press about different Italian regional cuisine, products and culture. We sponsor the Italian curriculum at the Culinary Institute of America: prior to this, the curriculum was only French and American. We also testified before Congress on behalf of Italian pasta producers to combat proposed excessive surcharges on pasta exported to the US.

How difficult has been over the years and still is today to explain and show to the American people the real Italian cuisine?

When the early immigrants introduced italian cooking to America, it was the ultimate comfort food: "Good, Plentiful & Cheap", and so America fell in love with a cuisine which was simple, easy to cook  at home, and very tasty. As years went by the cuisine evolved with the advent of a new wave of immigrants, who brought new ideas, new products and wood burning ovens. Americans then discovered learned about focaccia, mozzarella di bufala, bottarga, white truffe and many others wonderful Italian products, but above all they discovered extra virgin olive oil. In a word they discovered that Italian cuisine was more in keeping with the nutritional values of a modern consumer who wants to eat, well, lean, tasty and healthy. Based on these principles the American consumer made Italian cuisine the most popular cuisine in America.

The 70’s and the early 80’s saw also a new wave of Italian immigrants, chefs and operators in this field: enterpreneurs like Aldo Bozzi, Pino Luongo, Mauro Vincenti, Piero Selvaggio, Roberto Ruggeri, Francesco Antonucci, Lidia Bastianich and chefs like Valentino Marcattilii, Pierangelo Cornaro, Angelo Paracucchi, Andreas Hellrigl, Adriano Zanotti, Sandro Fioriti, Sergio Mei. These new professionals someway replaced the former ones who had invented themselves. Together with authors like Marcella Hazan and Giuliano Bugialli and many more American food journalist, they started to write feverishly about Italian food, and because of it they successfully started to change the perception of the consumers in America. They created a strong level of curiosity with the young culinarians, who became intrigued by this different style, different ingredients, different taste of a cuisine they thought they knew: so they started to travel to Italy, to learn about the taste and nuances of a contemporary Italian cuisine.

Today we have a new generation of talents: Paul Bartolotta, Andrew Carmellini, Michael White, Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, Scott Conant, Michael Lo Monaco, Carl Portale, Danny Mayer. We are committed in showing Americans that Italian cuisine has evolved tremendously since the 60’s. Today Italians use mostly olive oil as a cooking fat, garlic is used sparingly, the food is cooked a lot less in order to retain the flavors, the portions are much smaller in keeping with a more relaxed style of life, and they care more about how the food is presented. We tell everyday our customers that Italians use quality products, and quality is the most important ingredient necessary for a great Italian cuisine.

But I think that our popularity should not be taken for granted: we need to work hard, with passion and enthusiasm, continue to present new products and familiarize the consumer with the way Italians - in Italy - eat today.

What can Italy do to help promoting the true good Italian cuisine, improving what is already has been done?

Italy can help us maintanining its authenticity in the kitchen. To identify and recognize authenticity requires time, study, interest of the subject, and understanding of its people and their culture: in our case a culture that considers the table one of the most important pleasures of life. The American Press is probably not willing to take the time to study authenticity: instead we native Italians do care. We care because we do not want Italian cuisine to be Americanized in such a manner that in time it will change its taste and flavors. In a fast moving world, where everything is global, we need to maintain our identity, individualism and preserve our culture. If Italy does it, it certainly helps us a lot doing our part here in America.

Imagine to speak to a young Italian talented enterpreneur who wants to come to the USA and open his own restaurant. What advice could you give him? Would it be smart to come to one of the big cities where there’s already a market, or maybe try a place where he finds less competition but also less people already used to eat Italian?

It is a different country, a different mentality, a different way to conduct business. There is still room for the right persons who are willing to work hard: but they have to give themselves time to get to know the United States, their people and their business environment. Then they can cook and conquer! 

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