Born in Queens, New York, but raised in Avellino, Italy, Chef Michael Pirolo comes from a fiercely passionate food family. So much, in fact, that at the age of 21 he enrolled in culinary school in Torino, Italy; a formal education that led to apprenticeships at Michelin-starred establishments such as La Voglia Matta in Bologna and Café Groppi in Piemonte. After finishing his degree, he relocated to New York and changed tracks, immersing himself in French cuisine before relocating to Philadelphia to take the role of sous chef at Alfred Portale’s Striped Bass where he met his now-life and business partner Jen Chaefsky. A friendship turned to romance and when Pirolo had the opportunity to return to New York to take a post at Chris Lee’s Gilt at the Palace Hotel, Chaefsky accompanied him and the pair have been inseparable ever since.
How did you get into the industry?
I was 20 years old and I didn’t know what to do with my life. Growing up I was always helping my mom in the kitchen or replicating recipes I saw on The Food Network. My Uncle suggested I go to Culinary school and presented me with I.C.I.F.; a school in Costigliole D’Asti, Italy. After the course was up, I was placed at La Voglia Matta restaurant in Fusignano for my externship. I was supposed to stay in Italy for six months, but I ended up staying for three years bouncing around different restaurants trying to absorb as much of the culture as possible
Any emerging industry trends?
I think a growing trend, and one that I have joined with Pirolo’s Panino, is chefs joining the fast-casual sector. I think it speaks volumes to how American culture has shifted and there is a yearning for a higher quality product in that market as well.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
I think social media plays a huge role for us and is a great opportunity to get in touch with and interact on a personal level with our guests. Where previously you would have needed big marketing budgets, now you can have the same reach for a fraction of the cost.
An example of where technology hurts the industry is with all the delivery apps and reservation platforms. They all started out being very useful but have gotten so big and have increased their prices so much that it has gotten out of whack. They provide an integral service, but I see more and more business owners finding alternate avenues and working with lesser known and more affordable sites. I foresee it balancing itself out eventually.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
We opened Macchialina in Miami Beach and The Saint Austere in Williamsburg with a very singular vision. We wanted to provide a neighborhood restaurant in the communities that we live in. I wanted to create a restaurant that I would visit 3 or 4 times a week, whether for dinner, drinks or just a quick snack. There’s no better sense of community than when you have that gem in your neighborhood.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
We are always seeking new opportunities. We are actively looking to open a Pirolo’s Panino in Miami beach as well as expand and grow the Macchialina brand.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
About three years ago we started doing “Pasta Thursday” at Macchialina and more recently at The Saint Austere. It started as a one-time promotion where we offer all of our house made pastas for $10. It went and continues to go so well that we have extended it permanently.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
Our most difficult moment in our business was definitely our first year at Macchialina. The city of Miami dug up Alton Road (where the restaurant resides) to put in new storm drains. The project took about 2 years and there were bulldozers parked in front of the restaurant, no street or sidewalk for much of that time I guess what I learned from this is check with the city about upcoming construction they may have planned before signing a lease.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
It may sound cliché, but in all of our restaurants we just want people to have fun and leave happy. If we consistently achieve those two goals the rest takes care of itself.
How do you motivate others?
I think you motivate others by believing in them and leading by example.
Career advice to those in your industry?
Make sure you are having fun. It is easy to get bogged down by the stresses and intensity in our industry, but always remember that you are doing something you love.
As the leader of a business, how do you ensure you have adequate corporate governance?
This is all about hiring the right people for your team and holding everyone accountable, all while not micromanaging. You need to empower your management team to create leaders.