Over the years we have been invited to many events to meet a plethora of people promoting something, pushing a new book or introducing a new product. Typically, we do not go.
Last month we received an invitation to meet and interview Chef John Imbriolo, the Chief Culinary Officer at both BRAVO and BRIO and the mastermind behind FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc.’s new menus. Presently there are 58 BRIOS and 44 BRAVOS. All are under the stewardship of Imbriolo whose Italian family heritage is rooted in the Italian Mediterranean Way of cooking. FoodFirst Global Restaurants, Inc., is a newly formed restaurant company. Its mission is to provide Good Food for The Planet™ and their updated BRAVO menu is a step forward in that movement.
BRAVO’s Italian Mediterranean brand was orchestrated by its Founder, Owner-Partner, Chairman and CEO Brad Blum who searched to find the “right” Chief Culinary Officer. He hired Imbriolo, a fifth-generation Italian chef known as ‘Johnny I’, who learned to cook at the apron of his Italian immigrant father, Angelo Imbriolo. Angelo, age 93, was the executive chef at the popular Asti’s in New York City and was a “celebrity chef” before the term was ever invented.
Angelo Imbriolo was a favorite chef of John F. Kennedy and the Kennedy family as well as for Ronald and Nancy Reagan when they lived in the White House. Offered only at BRAVO today, are the same family recipes prepared by Chef Imbriolo’s father to delight President Kennedy and his family at their inauguration celebration in 1960 and for President Reagan and his family during his term in office throughout the 1980s.
BRAVO Cucina Italiana has just updated its Italian Mediterranean-inspired menu at its Naples restaurant, the chain’s premier training location. Some of the new dishes on the menu include an entirely new Alfredo Fresco line, Shrimp and Lobster Fettucine and Mediterranean Olives handpicked in Southern Italy.
For some reason, we were very intrigued by all of this. We accepted the invitation.
BRAVO is in a shopping center called “The Mercato.” Rather than parking and going into a mega-mall, the center has a small-town feel. When it’s early, you can park in the street and visit your favorite shops and restaurants.
Mark Young and I parked directly across the street from the restaurant. Before we could even open the door, Chef Johnny was there to greet us. “Hi, you must be Mark and Terri!”
We were somewhat stunned. How did he know who we were? Something tells me he was prepared or had a publicist who did her research and sent him our bios and photos. Either way, we were impressed. We later found out he “Googled” us. We immediately loved him!
Chef Johnny whisked us into a private dining room, had the staff close the door and immediately started talking about his love of food. You can tell it’s in his DNA. More importantly, Chef Johnny has his finger on the pulse of what the dining public is looking for when they go to an Italian restaurant.
It was just the three of us at a round table
Johnny understands that everyone loves Italian cuisine. We love the pasta, the sauces, the cheeses and the decadence of the cuisine. He also understands that we all have become very “carb-conscious” and eat them sparingly. His challenge was to add items to the menu that captured the essence of Italy without the guilt.
The first item that came to the table were dishes of Mediterranean olives. ($3.99) I looked at them skeptically. So did Mark. Both of us are not big fans. But there we were, in Chef Johnny’s dining room and we had to be gracious. I put a few of the green olives on my plate and popped one in my mouth. (I had no choice.) You know what? They were delicious. Mark was stunned as he saw me eat one after the other.
Turns out Chef Johnny found these olives on a remote farm in southern Italy. They are grown close to the ocean and protected by a mountain range. FoodFirst Global Restaurants basically buys the farm’s entire crop and has them shipped, three container loads a month, to the US, exclusively for BRAVO. I was impressed. “People who know olives, really like these,” he says.
Next, they served us a heaping platter of crispy Zucchini Fritta, fried shoestring zucchini, accompanied by a dipping sauce. ($7.99) They were outstanding. Better than French fries. I passed the platter to Mark. “Here,” I said to him. “Try some. You’re going to love them!” Knowing that the one vegetable in the world that he has an aversion to is zucchini.
There we were, both eating foods that we typically do not like and would not order. Chef Johnny’s menu was working its magic on us and we were becoming “believers.”
The main course was Spaghetti Pesto ($10.99) and Primavera Alfredo ($14.99) from the new menu. It was lighter than Fettucine Alfredo and the pesto was not overwhelming. We were in heaven.
The remarkable lunch was capped off with two signature desserts, cheesecake and a coffee martini poured over vanilla gelato. [Watch the video at end of story]
Chef Johnny’s Philosophy
- It’s all about freshness and using the best ingredients.
- Guests know when a restaurant is cutting corners.
- Making someone smile is a phenomenal feeling for a chef.
- Restaurants are always evolving.
- Trends are hard to read.
- I find inspiration in the craziest places.
- I am open to ideas.
In this hyper-digital age, Chef Johnny’s very aware of people taking pictures of their food in a restaurant. “Presentation is a chef’s responsibility. People eat with their eyes.”
He has no qualms about giving out recipes to anyone and likes to mentor and pass his knowledge on to younger chefs.
He told us about a trip he took to Lecce, Italy. When he checked into a hotel, the hotel manager saw his last name in the guest registry.
“Are you related to Angelo Imbriolo, the chef by any chance?” the manager inquired.
“Yes, I am,” Chef Johnny replied.
“Do you think you can teach our staff how to make pesto the way your father did?
By this time, all three of us had become friends. He told us how Chef Angelo had cooked for the Reagans and the Kennedy family. Johnny pulled out his cell phone and showed us pictures of his family and highlights from his and his dad’s career.
Chef Angelo met the Kennedy family and Senator Kennedy at a ski resort in Vermont. They adored his roasted suckling pig and his renowned spaghetti Bolognese.
“Your job in life is to leave this world a better place,” is his father’s philosophy. Chef Johnny credits his father for instilling him with a strong work ethic and a love of people. “My dad felt that whatever I did, it had to teach me a lesson. He always wanted me to learn something,” he stated.
Johnny shared some amazing stories about his family and about his dad, who has since moved to Florida to live with him and his wife. “There’s never a dull moment,” he reveals.
Johnny’s wife, Carolyn, is from Polish and Russian descent. When they met, she was a marketing executive for hotels in the Caribbean. She later pursued a legal career and became a successful paralegal. They have been married for “25 glorious years” he says proudly.
“My dad taught her to cook. She’s seen Under The Tuscan Sun. Apparently, now I have to buy a villa.”
For more information visit: www.bravoitalian.com