Del Lago Press

‘Top Chef’ alum Fabio Viviani previews casino restaurant

The “Top Chef” alumnus says his new restaurant at del Lago casino will feature the flavors of his native Italy but will source as many ingredients as possible locally. Tracy Schuhmacher and Shawn Dowd

His exuberant personality and thick Italian accent made Fabio Viviani one of the breakout stars of the fifth season of Bravo’s reality series Top Chef, earning him the title of “fan favorite.”

When the season debuted in November 2008, Viviani owned two restaurants. He recently was in town to preview his 16th, which will be housed within the del Lago Resort & Casino in Tyre, Seneca County, near Waterloo. Portico will be Viviani’s first restaurant in New York state; it, along with the casino, will officially open Feb. 1, 2017.

After his Top Chef debut, Viviani was cast for the eighth season of Top Chef, called Top Chef All Stars, in 2010. He has made frequent guest appearances on television shows including Good Morning America, The Talk, The Chew, Ellen, Access Hollywood and others. He authors cookbooks, sells wines, endorses products and appears at food events and festivals.

But he does not credit television stardom for his business success.

Television fame lasts “about five minutes,” he said. He noted that Top Chef, which debuts its newest season Thursday, has produced just a handful of standout successes among roughly 300 contestants in all.

“We milk the five minutes for the last seven years,” he said, using the imperfect English that endeared him to Top Chef viewers.

Viviani grew up in Florence, Italy, and started working in a local bakery at age 11. After much restaurant experience in Italy, he moved to California in 2005 at the age of 26.

His attributes his success since then to a combination of hard work and business acumen. He summarizes his strategy as follows: “Use that exposure, maximize it. Have a plan, expand. Make people happy; food is awesome. Boom.”

The fare at his new restaurant, Portico, will be Italian in inspiration, but the sophisticated, high-end dishes will be worlds apart from Grandma’s red sauce. Think delicate spheres of fried bread called coccoli that you carefully break open and fill with thin shavings of Prosciutto di Parma and soft chunks of Taleggio cheese, both of which have been drizzled with truffle honey and dotted with an oniony pesto. Or a composed salad of creamy avocado chunks, crisp fresh hearts of palm and a few baby greens, topped with pink chunks of succulent steamed lobster given a quick bath in butter, the richness cut with a bracing roasted grapefruit vinaigrette.

These are among the dishes that were served to a group of food writers at a recent Portico preview at the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua. Viviani is testing and fine-tuning the menu; he has visited the Finger Lakes area “dozens of time” to get a sense of the local palate, he said.

Portico will make pasta, gnocchi and breads from scratch daily. An in-house facility will wet age beef. Much of the produce and meats will be procured locally, while some cheeses and Prosciutto di Parma will be sourced from Italy.

“We want to support the local economy as much as we can,” he said.

Those visiting Portico in hopes of getting a picture with a celebrity chef will find that it’s a hit-or-miss proposition.

“People that still believe that I’m physically in every single restaurant that I have every day, they’re dreaming,” he said. He realized early on that for his business to grow and thrive, he’d need to delegate.

“You find very good people — as good as you are, if not better,” he said. “You take care of them. You pay them fairly.”

Viviani will initially ensure that the restaurant gets off to a strong start, and then will make return visits as needed. He will be joined by John Paolone, his California-based business partner, who oversees the culinary program for Viviani Hospitality Group. The two have worked together for more than a decade, since Viviani’s first American job at an Italian restaurant, when he spoke little English.

“We communicated through food,” Paolone said.

Don Agate of Skaneateles has been hired as the restaurant’s executive chef; he will spend 10 days training at Viviani’s Café Firenze in Moorpark, California. The restaurant is currently hiring sous chefs and line cooks.

While the restaurant will embody Viviani’s ideas, concepts and flavors, he will encourage his chefs to create new dishes within the construct of the concept.

Even if the television appearances dry up, Viviani expects to continue opening restaurants at a pace of two to four per year.

“We care for people. We care for service. We care for good food,” he said.