He says himself that he came to Russia almost by chance.
“In 2005”, recalls Valentino, “The Italian Cooks’ Federation offered to help me organize a kitchen in a new restaurant which a fellow Italian, a woman, was opening in Moscow on Nakhimovsky Prospekt. And I worked there as a consultant for about five months. Then I got a call from the head chef of another Moscow restaurant, Settebello. Somewhere along the line I met my future wife, and a son was born to us.
— How did your first Russian enterprise, the haute cuisine Bontempi Restaurant, come to be born?
— What was the most difficult thing at the initial stage?
— To get everything functioning properly. After all, you have to make an impression, to please a client who has come for the first time. You must not make serious mistakes, or you will never see him again.
— What startup capital is required to open a restaurant in Moscow?
— In Moscow today, there are hundreds of establishments offering Italian cuisine dishes. How do you beat the competitors?
— Our cuisine is one of the most popular in the world. It is in demand everywhere. That is its constant advantage when starting up. I have never worked in pseudo-Italian restaurants. And now we have Italian food, Italian service and an Italian attitude to the guests. I consider that the winning formula lies in the authenticity of the product we offer.
— In highly competitive conditions, you need advertising too.
— In our business there are things which must be scrupulously observed: the quality of the food and service, the price/quality ratio and a cordial attitude to every guest. If you achieve all this, you can reckon you’ve won the client over. After that, he will do the advertising for you, on a word-of-mouth basis. I rely on that sort of advertising more than anything. It is the most reliable.
— And how did “Pinzeria Bontempi” appear?
— The time came when I realized that as well as the restaurant, we needed another outlet available to the public at large. The running costs of the restaurant began to grow, which had an inevitable effect on the income from it. And I didn’t think a sharp rise in prices was quite fair. But there was another aspect to it, no less important to me. By that time I had managed to educated some good capable people on the staff and I did not want to lose them. Yet the economic situation required savings in personnel. So I said to them: “Let’s open something new of our own.” And some of them decided to go over to working in the newly-opened pinzeria, which exists as a sort of cooperative, with my participation and with that of the Russian lads who were working for me. And the main dish of the new outlet was pinza.
In my opinion, it is quite a risky undertaking to open a new restaurant in Moscow today. According to statistics, in December 2014 and January 2015, about 900 cafés and restaurants closed in Moscow, that’s eight per cent of the whole market. But this fact can also be used as a competitive advantage in connection with freed-up niches. The initial cost of entering the restaurant business market is 100-150,000 euros. The cost of leased premises varies depending on location, but the minimum floor space required is 200-300 sq.m. By comparison with the Western market, the Russian one is characterized by high consumer demand and the ability of a restaurant to be open round the clock, so that the flows of clients can be increased. After all, Moscow is a city which is “on the go” 24 hours a day, you can use all sorts of services at night. Even the metro conforms to the rhythm of life here – it doesn’t close till 5 a.m.!
— How many people are working in the restaurant and the pinzeria?
— In the summer, when the open-air terrace is in use, usually 30-35 people. In the pinzeria I try to manage with as few staff as possible, for understandable reasons, because that forms a considerable part of the expenses which I did not wish to compensate for by high prices. So there we have three or four people in the kitchen, a barman and four or five as waiters. All of them can in fact do any of these jobs, so each one is a head chef in miniature! And I sometimes come to the pinzeria myself, as it still requires particular attention. I work together with all the others from first thing in the morning, and we all finish at the same time. I also eat with the lads whatever they make themselves for lunch, though I swear under my breath sometimes because of the Russian habit of adding mayonnaise to everything, which I think is awful. I know they call me “Papa” behind my back. I always try to understand and get into everything that is going on, and not to punish for mistakes.
— Do your fellow Italians come to you to eat too?
— A lot of our customers are Italians, which – going back to advertising – also helps increase our Russian clientèle. Seeing my fellow countrymen here, Muscovites are more likely to believe that this is a place where we offer genuine original Italian dishes.
— Public catering is a complicated business; it involves questions of health and fire safety. Our inspectors can sometimes go too far with their visits. Do they cause you much trouble?
— That is an inevitable part of our work. We have to get used to it. In Italy, our business is controlled much more strictly than here, so I am not particularly inconvenienced by it in Moscow.
— Has the crisis hit you badly?
— The crisis does make itself felt, of course, particularly in the upper segment of our business. We have had fewer guests in the restaurant. But people are still coming to the pinzeria. Anyway, we have not raised our prices sharply in the Bontempi either. Prices must be honest. It is better to make money from the number of contented guests than from crazy prices.
— But still, many of the ingredients from which you prepare meals have to be imported. Surely you can’t make a real Italian dish from Russian raw materials? And imports are much more expensive, and sanctions…
Today, the restaurant business in Moscow is quite varied: about 65 national cuisines are represented in the capital. Both Western and the capital’s own chains of public catering enterprises are operating, and there are also many individual restaurants, many of a sufficiently high level to earn three Michelin stars. In spite of the wide variety of public catering outlets, there are quite good development prospects for entrepreneurs in this sector, particularly in creating niche restaurant concepts. However, comparing the Moscow public catering market with those of Western capitals, one cannot fail to notice that the number of restaurant businesses in Moscow is only 33-40% of what it is abroad. Furthermore, it is quite an expensive and risky undertaking to open a high-quality restaurant business in Moscow. Public catering outlets pay for themselves on average in three to five years. Also there is a lot of competition in this sector in Moscow. And entrepreneurs face the problem of a lack of commercial sites in the capital, there are only about half as many as in the cities of Western Europe and the USA.
— Would you advise foreign colleagues to open a café or restaurant in Moscow today?
— If you have a good project you believe in, no crisis can stop you. We opened the pinzeria at the height of the crisis last year. Of course, we couldn’t be sure it would turn out as it has. It has become an additional incentive to work and achieve success.
— Let us turn to your books. When and how did you take up your pen?
— A Russian publisher suggested the book to me one day. I have written three altogether. I’m glad to say they have been successful. By the way, you can buy them not only in bookshops, but also in our restaurant and pinzeria. They are set out on shelves. In the last two months alone, in the pinzeria alone, we have sold about ninety copies. People come in, see them and take them – with the author’s signature, of course.
— Do you have plans for the near and distant future?
— I am a superstitious man, I prefer not to give away anything about specific plans till they materialize. But in principle, it could be a new outlet, and it doesn’t have to be in Moscow, I have travelled a lot in the regions – both in connection with work, and also simply because they interest me. And I might write another book. Not about recipes this time, but stories from my life in Russia. There’s a lot here that I could talk about…