Vittorio Assaf: Co-Founder of Serafina Restaurant Group

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Vittorio Assaf grew up in Milan where he earned a degree in Political Science before studying Law at the University of Urbino. He spent eight years on the floor of Milan’s Stock Exchange and then moved on to pursue an opportunity in the fashion industry. He came to New York in 1985 with the seeds of priceless ideas that have grown into a string of flourishing businesses. He opened Café Candiotti in 1985, which featured original paintings by Andy Warhol and quickly became a true Manhattan hot spot. Vittorio works tirelessly and with undiminished enthusiasm for all his ventures. Mr. Assaf’s culture, sense of style, and passion for food is the heart of all menu creations for all the restaurants of the Serafina Restaurant Group.

How did you get into the Culinary industry?

At 4 years old I started cooking with my grandmother at her Wednesday night dinner parties for 40-50 people. By the age of 12, my grandmother was getting older and I took over the duty of cooking for all the guests by myself. From there, it was easy to gain the knowledge of the culinary world.

Tell us about Serafina Restaurant Group. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?

Our motto is Welcome Home.  

The original idea, was to make a restaurant that was an extension of your own dining room. A place where families, kids, business people, celebrities, actors, singers could be together and feel comfortable. The food is made with the best quality ingredients and the prices are reasonable. We started 20 years ago and my vision is to continue our tradition.

What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Serafina Restaurant Group's success?

I strongly believe in marketing and promotions. I wish I had time to focus more and more and more on marketing initiatives.  Any occasion to develop a marketing strategy alliance is always welcome.  We work specifically with hotel concierges, private schools, associations, specialty ingredient producers, food related charities, quality wine makers, local businesses. We try to develop a close relationship with all of these entities.

What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?

Thanks to our international expansion, we are exposed to many international requests and input.  The latest one is from Serafina India where we have 3 locations.  We receive requests for vegetarian dishes. Other countries in the world have different food requirements. For example, in Brasil, Turkey, Korea, through the process of granting their needs we conceive the idea for new dishes. A new big trend in America is the use of whole wheat and gluten free recipes.  In the end the sales are minimal but it is important to offer these options to customers who want it.

Life Motto?

Never give up. Whenever you do something, you have to do it with all your energy and to the end, you must stick with your decision.

Your greatest success as Proprietor of Serafina Restaurant Group?

Making people happy.  Seeing kids happy, watching them grow and come back on a date, come back with a fiancée, and finally come back with a family.

Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?

In this industry, there are many difficult moments.  When a customer is unhappy, our job is to make a customer happy.  This is the biggest challenge.

Every international opening is a new challenge--different clients, different people, different languages, different food ingredients For example, India requires spicy food, Japan requires smaller portions and refined presentation while Brazilians love large portions and creamy sauce. . However, I learned that food has no language barrier.

Your advice to an aspiring restaurateur?

The first requirement is experience.  Second, research.  Third, analytically dissect all the expenses to make sure that all the percentages are in accordance with what every textbook manual says.  From rent, to employee costs, to food costs.

Describe the ideal experience at Serafina.

Again, our motto is Welcome Home.  Therefore, as soon as you enter our doors, you should be welcomed exactly like your mamma welcomes you when you go to visit her.  Every part of your experience should be about a journey to Italy.  About love, about music, about quality of food. Then at the end, to conclude your experience, just like everyone greeted you when you came in, they will greet you when you say goodbye. In Italy, nobody comes or leaves a restaurant unnoticed. It is Italian hospitality. It was what the Italian are known for: “hospitality.”

How important are architecture/design to the success of your restaurants?

It is extremely important.  Serafina developed a unique style of bricks, earthy materials, reclaimed/recycled woods, recycled bricks, warm soft light, beautiful frescos that became characteristic of each of our restaurants.

Most popular dishes/drinks and your favorites?

I love my truffle pizza which took me almost 2 years to develop.  I’m also particularly fond of our gnocchi with cherry tomato. Our restaurants make homemade gnocchi twice a day to make sure that they are perfectly soft. And for dessert, I can’t get enough of is our absolutely stellar tiramisu.  Every morning, every restaurant makes 2.5 ltr of espresso, just to make our tiramisu that we are so proud of.

How do you motivate your employees?

By talking with them and listening to their opinions and strategies.  If they are on target, by letting them develop their ideas.  If not, by making them understand why my vision is more correct. Communication and respecting their ideas is important. Regardless of if they are right or wrong.  But if they are wrong, I try to make them understand why my vision is correct. I always try to motivate them by making sure they believe in the Serafina concept.

One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?

Serafina Truffle pizza and a glass of Serafina Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand.

What literature is on your bed stand?

I’m reading a beautiful book by Andy Warhol called Prince of Pop and a cook book by Eric Ripert.

Role model - business and personal?

As I love to cook, my dream is to be able to cook like Eric Ripert.  The only people I follow on Instagram  are Eric Ripert and Jean Georges. Because I grew up without a father, he died when I was a baby, my dream was always to understand finance so I tried to read as many books as possible about the finance world. For this reason, I developed respect and admiration for Warren Buffet’s lifetime achievements.

Current passion?

My dream is to learn how to kite surf.  It is an incredible sensation and you feel like you’re flying over the waves. I’m really trying but going nowhere because I weigh 235lbs and the size of my kite is the size of a sailboat, it is really challenging! (laughs)

Favorite travel destination?

I can’t wait to go back to Tokyo. Japan is so incredibly neat, organized and perfect. People are so educated and correct.  Everything works.  Everything is pure and pristine.  You can taste the most incredible produce you ever tasted.  It is a pleasure and honor to have Serafina in Japan.  We will open a third location in July.

What's next for Serafina Restaurant Group?

We will create a Central Kitchen operation. The re-opening of Geisha which will be a dream come true for me. To expand in many more cities in the U.S. like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., Miami and we will continue our international expansion.