Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
SPANU'S OWN: Dishes like Spaghetti allo Scoglio at A Bellagio adhere to Pino Spanu's strict rules for real Italian cuisine.
The Italian King of Campbell
Pino Spanu's trio of authentic eateries has boosted the local dining scene
By Jennifer Jespersen
CAFÉ CAMPBELL is warm with the scent of an Italian meal chased by hints of coffee and sweets. Owner Pino Spanu delivers instructions in Italian to his staff behind the counter. Even if he were speaking English, his Italian accent would be thick. Spanu's wife, Hong Gui, sits at one of the black granite-topped tables sipping from one of several glasses of wine with a well-dressed woman—a wine rep, no doubt—who is describing each vintage in detail.
The décor in the Café is beautiful. The walls are drizzled in hues of amber and butter cream, rich crimson window treatments hang lazily and soft lighting adds an element of warmth. Display cases reveal fine Italian meats, appealing deserts and two long rows of the best gelato in town. On the wall behind the counter are shelves holding fine spirits and all the necessities for the perfect cappuccino.
Looking across the street through the windows of Café Campbell, one can see the bustling La Pizzeria, where authentic Italian pizzas are skillfully prepared and cooked in a wood-burning oven. Just behind the Café lies A Bellagio, the fine dining restaurant and final player in this trio of eateries, Spanu's downtown-Campbell-based empire of Italian cuisine.
The Campbell scene has always had its ebb and flow. Boutiques, cafes and salons have come and gone.
"Five years ago when I came to Campbell, it was so quiet," Spanu recalls, "There was nobody around."
Anyone who remembers Campbell back then would be hard-pressed to disagree. Recently, though, Campbell has become a hot and happening town again. The nightlife scene has grown substantially and there are great restaurants lining the main drag, giving throngs of shoppers and revelers the motivation needed to spend their dough.
Spanu played a crucial role in this latest renaissance. Sure, during the slow times in the last two or three years, places like Sonoma Chicken Coop seemed to be doing OK, and Katie Bloom's held its own with a patio dotted with true-blue drinkers most nights, but the constant crowd at La Pizzeria definitely made it stand out.
Downtown Campbell business owners and employees have noticed the positive changes Spanu has stirred in the life of downtown Campbell. Neighbors agree La Pizzeria and Café Campbell have drastically increased foot traffic in Campbell, resulting in more business for Spanu's neighbors.
Betty Deal, executive director of the Campbell Chamber of Commerce, says Spanu has had a positive impact on the community. "He brings a really good crowd into Campbell, especially with the evening dining at A Bellagio," she says. "I'd say he's a very important businessman in our community."
Spanu, 42, was born and raised near Bellagio, Italy. Growing up in a poor family brought him to begin at age 12 what would become a lifelong career in the restaurant business, but he couldn't tell them what he was doing.
"When I went to work for the first time, my father didn't even know because I was way too young," Spanu recalls. "When I started, I was doing whatever they would ask me—cutting potatoes, washing dishes, whatever they would ask." Eventually, he hoped to work his way into the kitchen, which proved to be a very difficult task.
"In Italy, it is not easy to be a chef," Spanu says. "Every six months you change jobs. You work in a different restaurant, which allows you to learn and have more experience. You go to fine dining restaurant, you go to five star hotel, you keep doing this for about seven, eight, 10 years."
Spanu estimates he's worked at between 30 and 40 restaurants.
Inarguably, Spanu has enough experience for several chefs. He spent three years in London working at a pizza place, two fine dining restaurants, even a Burger King.
"I believe everywhere you work in your life is good," he says. "It can be fine dining or it can be the cheapest place you can find, it doesn't matter. You need to learn. In every place, you have a different way to work. Even from the cheapest restaurant you can still learn something. The only thing you have to understand is that whatever is good, you keep it with you; whatever is not, you let it go."
The First Course
At 26, Spanu was intent on running his own restaurant, but he knew the circumstances in Italy were unforgiving. "In Italy, it's not very easy to make money [in the restaurant business]. When you come from a very poor family, you need to work hard to get there, and it's not easy in Italy. I just had a dream. I said, 'You know, I just want to go to America and see what I can do.' And that's what I did."
At the time, a friend who owned the Palace, an Italian restaurant in Santa Fe, invited Spanu to move to the States and help him run his business. Spanu leapt at the opportunity and employed his talents in every aspect of the restaurant, from the front of the house to the back.
While working there, a Campbell girl in town on business stopped in to dine. Eventually, she would become Spanu's wife and the reason that he would move to Campbell to open his restaurant. It took almost three years before he was able to move to Northern California. Once here, Spanu worked simultaneously at three different restaurants while he and his wife rented a small apartment together and began saving money for building Spanu's dream restaurant.
"We were living in a small apartment in Campbell at first. I was working at three different restaurants to try and make some money to open my own business. I was working seven days a week. After we bought a house in south San Jose, I was ready to open the restaurant."
In 2003, he was able to open A Bellagio in the space once occupied by a casual Italian eatery called Giuseppe's.
"A Bellagio is me," he says. "It is what I put my heart in the most."
La Specialita Della Casa
To Spanu, Italian cuisine is not spaghetti and meatballs. It's not red-and-white checkered tablecloths.
"I never sell, not once in my life in Italy, spaghetti and meatball. Here, if you're talking about an Italian restaurant, that's what people think about. I will never serve it, because that's not Italian food," he says. "It's Americanized Italian food. Lots of people like that, and I have nothing against it, but don't come in and tell me that's Italian food."
To him, authentic Italian cuisine is all about freshness and simplicity, preparations that allow each ingredient to shine.
"We try to keep the food the way it's supposed to be, the way I learned," Spanu says. "Like, you know, we serve osso buco the way it's supposed to be. Osso buco comes from Milano, and you have to cook it with celery, carrots, onion, red wine ... you cook it for a couple of hours. Original osso buco is veal and it's served with risotto. Now, you go into so many different restaurants and it's served with so many different sauces, but you can't call that osso buco. It's like if I say I'm going to cook prime rib, and instead I use filet mignon and put cream sauce and mushrooms on it—this is not prime rib anymore."
Spanu's ingredients are as high-quality as they come. In the beginning, he was, like every restaurateur, concerned about food costs. But he didn't, and still won't, let the prices deter him, and he buys everything organic.
"I don't buy cheap. I want the best and I get the best. Nobody can come to me and say, 'This is not the best meat,' or 'This is not the best fish,' because it is," he says. "The flour we buy at the pizzeria is 100 percent the most expensive flour you can ever find."
If Spanu has learned anything from running his restaurants, it's that bringing authenticity to the table isn't easy.
"With the pizzeria, it was very difficult to make people understand the way true Italian pizza is," he remembers. "Initially, people were asking, 'Can you cut the pizza?' And if I would say, OK, let's cut the pizza, then people would say, like, 'Can you put mushrooms and sausage and spinach on one side, and put all this other stuff on the other side?' All this stuff, we don't do it! We do it the way it's supposed to be."
Spanu's passionate dedication to authenticity is perhaps the No. 1 reason why his businesses are so successful. "You can ask my waiters, they all hate and love me, because I go there and I drive them crazy. If I go there and they are trying to get cheese on a pasta with seafood, I'm going to get so mad!"
Spanu must be doing it right, because his calendar is booked solid with catering events for full-blooded Italian families, his restaurants are packed with Italians and non-Italians alike, and customers can't seem to stay away.
"Eighty percent of our business is repeat customers," he says. "We do stuff the way it's supposed to be. And whoever knows the way Italian pizza and the way Italian food is, they will tell you this is the place, at A Bellagio or La Pizzeria, and that is important to me."
Rough patches are par for the course in the restaurant business, but it seems that they have passed for Spanu. A Bellagio is offering an unparalleled, healthy Italian fine dining experience and La Pizzeria is supplying what is widely considered some of the best pizza you'll ever indulge in. The final and newest addition of Café Campbell, which offers a casual setting for breakfast, lunch, dinner and desert gelato martinis that are not for the faint of heart (or alcohol tolerance), is the Tiffany tiara. Like Campbell itself, his empire is thriving.
Will he be adding to his realm any time soon? Maybe, but not in Campbell.
"Three is enough," he says, "Campbell is doing good now."
Over the next few years, Spanu hopes to open a few more locations of La Pizzeria, possibly in Los Gatos, Palo Alto or Mountain View.
"I cannot tell you I'm the best or I'm the worst—people can judge this on their own," he says. "But I can tell you that I'm a tough competitor. I try to do stuff the best way I can. And when customers have a suggestion, if they are right then I will listen and try to improve myself. I will always listen to everyone, but I will make my decision based on what I've learned in my life."
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