Barbieri celebrates 50 years as head of Little Venice group
Restaurateur Emilio Barbieri really wanted to turn everything gold, to celebrate half a century with the Little Venice Restaurant on Bermudiana Road.
“Gold is the colour for a 50th anniversary,” said Mr Barbieri who took over the restaurant on September 1, 1971.
The intention was to really wow customers with gold lobster and gold steak, but two weeks before arrival, the little box of edible gold leaf went missing.
“More is being Fedexed,” Little Venice executive chief Danny Lim said.
In the meantime, staff are contenting themselves with black Covid-19 masks embroidered with ‘50th anniversary’ in gold stitching.
The colour is fitting, because one could argue the 80 year old from Modena, Italy, has the Midas touch.
When the he first took over the eatery with partner, Franco Bortoli, the place was small and rustic.
“I remember the payroll book,” he said. “Entries were in pencil, and the chef got $100 a week.”
Fast forward to today, and the business has grown into the Little Venice Group including 15 other restaurants, a wine bar and a catering arm.
And in June, they acquired Somers Wharf on Water Street, which houses businesses scattered along 150 feet of waterfront on the edge of St George’s Harbour.
“I have never been able to say no,” Mr Barbieri said. “Little Venice would have been good on its own. We had enough energy. The key element of the success has been our initial core of staff who was really, really qualified. They helped us to expand.”
The restaurant was first opened in the same spot in 1953 by Emmanuel and Mary Calleya.
“It was a bakery at first, and then the couple decided to open a restaurant after visiting Venice on their honeymoon,” Mr Barbieri said.
He first came to Bermuda in 1960, at 18, to work as a waiter at the Coral Beach Club.
“I wasn’t even sure where Bermuda was,” he said. “I came to work on my English. In order to get anywhere in the restaurant industry in Italy, you need to have at least three or four different languages.”
He likes to joke that he came here with Columbus.
“He had other things to do, so he dropped me off,” he said.
In 1976, Mr Franco left, and Mr Barbieri took on another Italian partner, Gioacchino “Jacky” Di Meglio. Today the two are lifelong friends, but tease each other mercilessly.
“Emilio would like the photo sitting down, because he is so short,” said the much taller Mr Di Meglio.
He also jokes that he was “the baby that Columbus forgot”, because he is younger than Mr Barbieri, at 73, and arrived in Bermuda from Caprese, Italy, a few years after Mr Barbieri.
They think that good service and good food might be the secret to their success. Their mission to provide simple, but good Italian food, has remained constant, through the years.
“Good food not only feeds your body, but feeds your soul,” Mr Barbieri said.
And if the food tastes fresh, it is because much of it is.
Mr Barbieri grows the basil used at the restaurant, and other members of staff also provide their own home-grown contributions.
And it might be the partners’ larger than life personalities that keep customers coming back. Mr Barbieri is well known for remembering customers’ names, months or even years after meeting them.
Although both are retirement age, they get a little stuck when asked about succession planning. Mr Barbieri has five children, but only one, Belinda Barbieri, is involved in the business. This summer, his teenage granddaughter Ella Rouja, started working in the restaurant.
Mr Di Meglio’s two daughters, Stefania and Sabrina, also work for the company.
The Covid-19 pandemic has meant the Little Venice has not been able to plan any large celebratory events, so far. But last month, they held a wine tasting in their wine bar, conducted by Wine Diva Jo-Rena Davis. A second is planned for September 18.