mood-setting can mean everything to a restaurant.
For instance, there’s something about the way mahogany wood, deep-buttoned black leather booths, stiffly starched linen and an aromatic rush of marinara sauce can wrap a cozy dining blanket around customers in winter. Add family pictures on the walls, hanging globes shedding soft light, Frank Sinatra softly crooning and amiable servers, and you’re in a pre-World War II Little Italy neighborhood restaurant. Or at least that’s the way it felt during a recent visit to the Maggiano’s Little Italy unit in Wauwatosa, WI.
“We’re aware that most people eat with their eyes and dine with their senses and pocketbooks, and here at Maggiano’s you get a lot of value for your dollar,” says Eric Batson, restaurant manager of the Wauwatosa Maggiano’s.
Scratch Southern Italian recipes are made in-house daily and whether ordered off the standard menu or family-style dining menu, all portions are generous. And of course, Maggiano’s, recipient of the 2005 Cheers Award for Beverage Excellence for best chain wine program, offers an extensive wine list that only enhances the mood.
Dave Pennachetti, director of Maggiano’s beverage program for the past six years, says insights from beverage managers at the restaurant level help him make beverage decisions, as do recommendations for additions and deletions for a certain style of wine or brand name. “We do have a standard wine list with a few regional pricing differences out there. And a wine list customer insight questionnaire is sent out to our beverage managers at each location, including questions such as: How approachable is the wine list? Does the customer feel it’s comfortable and can they find things quickly on it?” says Pennachetti.
Wine tastings are held each year for managers, chefs, servers and bartenders at parent company Brinker International, based in Dallas. Based on vendor recommendations, Pennachetti develops a core list of considerations he then brings to the group. “We evaluate taste, value, brand name awareness and what type of varietal it is,” says Pennachetti. Combining voting from the tastings, unit questionnaire feedback (including sales numbers), research from vendor partners like Franciscan Wine Estates, Brinker’s own internal studies, and consumer trends, Pennachetti and company develop an updated wine list.
Execution matters as well. “We like to have our beverage managers train the roll-out we bring them in as a group and review the new wine list with them, have them taste all the wines, go over the training materials and then they go out into each individual restaurant and implement the new wine list,” says Pennachetti.
HANDS-ON SERVER TRAINING
During an opening in their initial five-hour wine training provided by Pennachetti, servers are allowed to taste the food and wine. “We try to make it easy to understand wine by giving key traits to each popular varietal trying to show differentiation between the varietals so when the customers say, ‘We like light bodied wine,’ the server can then say, ‘Okay, these are the grapes that fit into that category.’ We review and taste differences between California and Italian chardonnay, for example. Each have a different taste, body style and food pairing, so what we want to do is identify those styles for the server,” says Pennachetti.
Pennachetti says establishing a customer comfort level when ordering wine is important for Maggiano’s. To address the average casual dining consumer’s still-shaky relationship with ordering wine, Maggiano’s managers have developed this year’s easier to read wine list with highlighted headings, and the addition of three new categories (sauvignon blanc, riesling and sangiovese/Super-Tuscan).
Maggiano’s has also bolstered matched selling by adding a nine-segment food and wine pairing section that describes certain types of grape varietals and matches those wines with signature dishes. “At Maggiano’s we always want to keep the dining experience a wine and food experience. The signature dishes are there because, on a regular basis, we were hearing the customer ask, ‘What goes with this certain type of pasta?'”says Pennachetti. Starting with pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and riesling, and moving toward chardonnay, Chianti, sangiovese & Super-Tuscan, the lighter bodied white wines are listed at the top of groupings and move progressively toward the fuller-bodied red wines.
EQUAL MIX OF WINE SALES
Maggiano’s sells an equal mix of domestic and imported wine, Pennachetti says. “We sell 60 percent by the glass and 40 percent by the bottle, with wine sales representing well over half of total alcohol sales.” The chain also offers a wine of the month program featuring wines from around the world that are either on the existing list or are being tested as potential new wines. “Each featured winery representative provides shift meeting tastings of the wine where we also discuss food pairing at that time. We had done a Columbia Winery Merlot that was an introductory wine from Washington State for us and based upon the feedback, we actually brought in three wines from Washington State the following year,” says Pennachetti.
Advertised both internally and externally, special winemaker dinners are held several times a year. Frequency and price range depend upon location and the wines served.
With all this attention given to training and understanding the nuances of pairing food with wine, it’s no wonder wine sales remain a growing aspect of the business for the Maggiano’s brand.
Wine sales are healthy and so are total alcohol sales. (Beer doesn’t make up a large portion of Maggiano’s business.) “We find a higher ratio of Martinis in the bar area compared to the dining room, where wine is the primary beverage of choice,” says Pennachetti.
Contemporary favorites are big for Maggiano’s, accounting for four out of the top five most popular cocktails. In order of popularity: the Cosmopolitan, the Sour Apple Martini, the Frozen Peach Bellini, and the Lemon Drop Martini. Depending upon regional and market differences, Martini prices range from $7.95 to $10.95.
But in the end, it’s the Italian wine and food connection that has set the chain apart, giving Maggiano’s Little Italy the 2005 Cheers Award for Beverage Excellence for best chain wine program. That, and a boost from the nostalgic affection all Americans seem to have for a slowly vanishing Italian-American family dining tradition.
The Maggiano’s Concept
Although created in 1991 by Lettuce Entertain You, in 1995 Maggiano’s Little Italy was purchased by Brinker International, Inc. The Dallas-based company has grown the chain to 32 units, with plans to open four-to-six each year.
Maggiano’s chief operating officer, Jonathan Fox, says, “In the Brinker portfolio, Maggiano’s is probably the brand that requires that triple-A piece of real estate; we’re talking about a 15,000 square feet on average footprint for our building. You’re looking at that prime piece of real estate in metropolitan areas that’s going to be great for your general dining population and the banquet business. Our dining rooms seat anywhere from 175 to 375 people and in private dining there is a range between 150 to 550. Maggiano’s is a rarity in the casual-plus dining field in that it has these lavish banquet facilities available for very large parties. We’re able to execute banquets at a much higher culinary standard than most of those large hotel chains are able to do.”
In addition to Maggiano’s Little Italy, Brinker International owns, operates, franchises, or is involved in the ownership of more than 1,500 restaurants under the familiar names of Chili’s Grill & Bar, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina, Corner Bakery Café, Big Bowl Asian Kitchen and Rockfish Seafood Grill. –SM
What’s On the Menu
At the 32 Maggiano’s Little Italy, classic Italian-American checked-tablecloth traditions reign supreme.
“Part of the essence of Maggiano’s is a very family oriented restaurant, homestyle food and family-style dining in the Italian household the way it is on a Sunday afternoon,” says Maggiano’s chief operating officer, Jonathan Fox. “The popularity of family-style dining is a signature of Maggiano’s and accounts for approximately 20% of our food sales in our dining room.”
Although it varies from market to market, some of Maggiano’s most popular appetizers and salads include crispy Calamari Fritté, Stuffed Mushrooms, Caesar Salad and Maggiano’s Salad made with crispy prosciutto, red onion and bleu cheese.
Rigatoni D, Lasagna and Chicken Parmesan are popular entrée items. Made with a lightly creamed marsala-mushroom sauce with herbed chicken, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, and rigatoni pasta, their Rigatoni D was named for the Maggiano chef who created the dish. For their lasagna, mozzarella and parmagiano cheeses, crumbled meatballs and Italian sausage are folded into whipped ricotta cheese to create their soufflé-style version topped with marinara sauce.
“Our core menu is the same across all of our restaurants; however executive chefs are allowed to select and run special feature recipes from a repertoire of seasonal and regional menu items that have been approved at the corporate level allowing a consistent level of quality and brand representation,” says Fox.
There are over 80 approved special recipe items and executive chefs are allowed to feature any four per week. Specials include Zuppa di Pesce the traditional Italian seafood pasta served soup style in coastal Maggiano’s units. An Italian pot roast cooked with carrots, onion and celery and potatoes is a standard special offered at every unit on Sundays, with limited quantities available.
Being in an Italian restaurant, you’d expect to find a lot of pasta entrees, and Maggiano’s doesn’t disappoint. From Spaghetti Marinara to Linguini with White Clam Sauce and Angel Hair Shrimp al Arrabiata, Maggiano’s hasn’t let the low carb craze alter their menu.
“People talk about the low-carb dietary craze but we haven’t seen a significant change in their behaviors. Quite honestly I’ve heard less of it in talk as well that was such the rage a year ago but I think most of us just watched it and knew it was just a big fad that was going to die fast and hard and that’s pretty much bearing out this year. In reality when you look at what you’re going to sustain in your lifestyle it really comes down to moderation and choices, [so we] give the guest options to make those choices of moderation,” says Fox.
Sides include garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach, but the most popular side is Carol’s Broccoli steamed broccoli florets topped with fresh slices of sautéed garlic toasted in olive oil and finished with lemon juice and a touch of butter. –SM
Maggiano’s Wine Favorites
Top three Chiantis & Chianti Classicos by the glass:
Castello di Querceto, Chianti Classico,
Tuscany 2002 – $5.95
Ruffino Aziano Chianti Classico,
Tuscany 2002 – $8.95
Frescobaldi “Castiglioni,” Chianti DOCG,
Tuscany 2002 – $7.50
Top Chianti by the bottle:
Ruffino Aziano Chianti Classico,
Tuscany 2002 – $36
Top two pinot grigio by the glass:
Ecco Domani, Delle Venezie 2003 – $5.95
“Danzante” Frescobaldi & R. Mondavi
Delle Venezie 2002/2003 – $6.95
Top pinot grigio sold by the bottle:
Santa Margherita, Alto Adige 2003 – $45
Top three merlot by the glass:
Blackstone, California 2002 – $7.95
Arancio, Sicily 2002 – $6.75
Clos du Bois, Sonoma 2000/01 – $9.50
Top merlot sold by the bottle:
Blackstone, California 2002–$59
Setting the Italian Table
Although not mandatory, the chain does request that large parties of six or more order from their Family Style Dining menu. “The reason why we encourage it is because it gives you the opportunity to try a number of items off the menu in a very casual style of dining, whereas if you were ordering a la carte, you would only be able to order one or two items. The family style allows groups to select two appetizers, two salads, two pastas, two entrees and a choice of two desserts–choosing from the entire span of the menu,” says chief operating officer Jonathan Fox.
“We also have a special menu for the bar that is comprised of select items from our core menu and is simply focused on the type of dining that is common in a bar area–that being appetizers, featured cocktails and Martinis. However, if someone chooses to dine and have pasta and anything else they can order off of our restaurant menu. With less than 5 percent of food sales eaten in the bar, it’s more common to see people dining in the lounge area at lunch and ordering cocktails and appetizers in the evening,” Fox says. About three-fourths of Maggiano’s beverage alcohol mix comes from the dining room, the rest from the bar.
“We review both our food and beverage program on an annual basis–although it is an on-going effort throughout the year from a developmental point of view. We basically have a spring beverage and fall roll-out for food,” says Fox.
To foster the Italian wine and food culture, a four-week promotion focusing on the regional differences in Italy was slated to roll out this month. During the promotion, samples of specific items on the menu will be available for guests in the lounge area. –SM