Off the Cuff: Tony Pietoso
Cafe Napoli has been a St. Louis staple for more than 30 years. The restaurant, which sits at the corner of Forsyth and Bemiston, was opened by Tony Pietoso in 1989, but when he came to America from Italy in the 1970s, he didn’t know the mark he’d leave would be a culinary one. Now, he’s sharing his story and what makes Cafe Napoli special.
When did you come to the U.S.?
I came from Florence on July 1, 1970. I was in an orphanage, and one of the directors invited me to visit America. I went to Chicago first, and from there, my sponsor was transferred to St. Louis to teach at Lutheran High School North.
How did you end up staying in the country?
We had an apartment across the street from the high school. One afternoon, I went over to play soccer. When I was dribbling the ball, I noticed everyone looking at me, but I didn’t know what was going on. Long story short, they wanted me to stay and play on their team. The principal arranged for me to have one-on-one tutors, and that’s how I learned English. I was scouted by Florissant Valley Community College, and in 1973, we won nationals. I wanted to play professionally, but my knees went kaput, and I became a hairstylist instead.
How did you get in the restaurant business?
I went back to Italy, but I didn’t like it. I returned to America after three months, but I had given all my clientele to a friend. I became a waiter, working as a stylist on the side. I enjoyed being in the restaurant and was good at it, so I thought why not give being a restaurateur a shot.
Cafe Napoli now is a gathering spot with all sorts of people coming through. Why do you think it’s become such a respected establishment?
We treat our customers like family. I remember my customers’ names, and my kids do the same. When you come to Cafe Napoli, you know you’re going to have a good time and good food, and there’s going to be people you know. It’s a place to be and a place to be seen.
If someone has never been to Cape Napoli, what should they expect?
Service, service and more service. Good food and service are an outstanding combination. I always want to personally meet the people who come in. Every time we have new customers, I go over to introduce myself. I ask them what they like to eat and then give my personal recommendations for what I think will make them happy. It never fails.
Your sons, Ande and Kye, have helped grow the businesses.
Yes, Kye is general manager at Cafe Napoli, and we have Napoli 2 in Town and Country, which is run by Ande. This winter, we are opening a new restaurant in the Streets of St. Charles.
Who is the most recognizable customer you’ve had?
Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson.
What item could you never take off the menu?
Veal chop vino rosso—that’s veal grilled with mushrooms and Burgundy sauce with a little pasta on the side. It’s excellent.
Best advice you can give somebody in the restaurant business.
A restaurant is like a baby. You’ve got to be with it 24/7, and you never stop worrying or thinking about it. If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to be willing to do it right. I think you have to be born with a certain personality and attitude.
What did you look forward to when you first opened your doors for business?
To fill up my restaurant. I went outside with a napkin and flagged people in.
How has it been dealing with the pandemic?
This is a tough business already, and seeing so many restaurants go down just breaks my heart. We’ve been very lucky. One day, I was walking in the park, and a customer saw me. He told me he hoped we’d be able to keep going and then asked for a $500 gift card. How often does something like that happen? Only in America.
As a former stylist, your hair is always looking right. Who does it?
I just got back from Fernando DiCresce’s shop in Westport Plaza. He’s the friend I gave all my clients to.
Outside of the restaurant, what is the one thing you’d like to do more of?
I have three sports that I will never give up: golf, soccer and racquetball.
Best wine you’ve ever had at your restaurant.
It’s got to be Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino. I love that wine.
Which of these do you own: an apron, smoking jacket, ascot, chef’s hat, pipe or deck shoes?
I’ve got everything at home.
What’s the first thing you look for in a restaurant?
If the service is good, I know everything else is going to be good. I look at the person who is taking care of me. Is he or she going to make my experience fun or not?
If you couldn’t eat at an Italian restaurant, where would you go?
What’s the one comfort food you can’t go without?
And you can whip it up anytime?
Anytime. Give me some tomatoes, onions, garlic and extra virgin olive oil, and I can whip up the best pasta you’ve ever tasted.
What’s a common mistake when making Italian food?
When I go to an Italian restaurant, there’s often not enough garlic, and the pasta isn’t fresh. If the pasta isn’t al dente, I don’t want it.
Who is the one person you still want to cook for?
What do want people to know about Tony Pietoso that they don’t?
I am so blessed to know all of you. I am so lucky to be in this country. I cherish every day of being an American citizen. I cherish my kids, my friends and everybody who works for me.