Fabio Viviani has some lofty goals, but we have faith in the charismatic former Top Chef contestant.
The feisty Italian, 36, is taking on the mega space that housed China Grill, turning it into Siena Tavern, a successful restaurant he runs in Chicago.
We spoke to Viviani while he was in Miami checking out the digs (“That’s a lotta meatballs!” he jokes), set to open in the fall. He traveled with fiancee, Ashley Jung, who works in real estate. They live in the Windy City and are currently looking for a home in the SoFi area.
What is your vision for the new restaurant?
My partners and I didn’t want to do a typical Italian restaurant. There’s plenty of red-sauce type places. We wanted to give you the vibe that Italy was transported to you. We were inspired after taking a trip to Siena and ended up in a hole in a wall called La Taverna. It was like the owners went to their grandmothers’ house and took the decor. It was rustic and modern but in a tchotchke way. We want to take what’s good about Italy and translate it to the U.S.
What will the menu be like?
We went through a lot of testing, tasting like 100 dishes. If it’s like, ‘Holy s---!’ we keep it. The food has to be like, ‘ Whaaattt?!’ We call them the cravers, the dishes you order because you want everything. Of course we’ll do our pasta and pizza and crudos, our own bread from scratch, our own mozzarella. But we also want to grab what Miami has to offer, while considering the weather. You’re probably not going to find lasagne or hot soup in August.
What about Siena Tavern’s vibe?
One characteristic that puts us aside is that we’re not going to be hot for a couple of months then forgotten. I’ve been in this business 25 years. I know you can’t spend too much time following trends, trying to be the really cool, hipster place. We want to be a neighborhood spot. But OK, this is Miami. If someone wants to park a Bentley outside, or a flashy tourist wants to come while they’re on vacation, we’ll be happy to serve them. We want to be there for locals and make sure they know we’re not going anywhere in six months. During the day, you want to wear your flip-flops? No problem. At nighttime, dress up a little bit.
Any more plans for reality television?
There is always stuff going on – appearances, morning talk shows. I’m a different beast on TV. Some people say I’m good for it. But I have a very hard time with authority, someone telling me what to do, telling me to ‘bring the drama.’ That’s not me. What I do from now on will be very strategic. I don’t want to be on TV just to be seen. I’d rather be in the kitchen. That’s where I belong.
You’ve been in the U.S. since 2005. How often do you visit your hometown of Florence?
About once a year. According to my mom, I should be there every weekend. When I get back, the good part is that I don’t have to cook! I go, and I sit down and eat, and I know I’m not going to be doing anything. My mother says to me: ‘Over there you’re hot s--t! You come here, this is my kitchen!’ I see everyone: my family, my friends. Thank God for Ashley or else I’d be lonely.
Do you have time for wedding planning at all?
We got engaged at Christmas, so we’re not in a hurry. We’re thinking of going to Costa Rica [to elope]. I think you have a better shot when no one’s there. My first marriage didn’t work out; we had 300 people, the church, the whole thing. This would be the second wedding for Ashley also. Maybe we’ll have a baby first. Who gives a crap about paper?
How do you stay in shape with all that pasta around?
Well, my shape is round so ... [laughs]. Lately I’ve started these stupid gimmicks in front of the TV. Aerobics, which makes me embarrassed. The truth is I work 130 hours a week. I’m always up, on the go, drinking a lot of coffee. I don’t sleep very much. If I stopped moving I would be 70,000 pounds because I eat like a madman.