“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” quotes the melancholy lord, Jacques, in William Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy As You Like It. The comparison is by no means a new one — even the prog-rock band Rush alluded to the line in their hit, “Limelight.” And while the cliché phrase may have officially moved out of the spotlight and into the shadows, it has enough juice for a final squeeze: All the bloggers are critics, and the Internet their publishers.
In this case, On The Menu served as a stage for two new players who didn’t like it (it being their experience at local restaurant Sorriso Italiano). Their very first article, “Table for Two: Date Night at Sorriso” met harsh criticism from ardent fans of the 901 Embarcadero del Mar eatery, and comments on Facebook even led owner Antonio Gerli to inquire with the section’s editors mere hours after the post went live online.
And if the world really is a stage, we at On The Menu want to make it the contemporary style of theater where the audience wanders around with the actors, or at the very least, the type where the strings are visible. We recognize our oversights — we allowed first-time writers to tackle a restaurant review, we published it and we thought that we were too small for anyone to notice. The flood lights are on, and the show must go on.
So we met with Sorriso Italiano owner Antonio Gerli, a certified sommelier, former marathon runner and current husband and father, a few days after the rate of comment growth had plateaued, to give him the opportunity to share his thoughts on his restaurant, his food and, of course, his piano.
Wearing a red Ferrari polo and sleek, frameless glasses, Gerli took the orders of a group of college-aged customers before grasping each of our hands and instructing us to find a seat at one of the spotless white tables. We settled into the modern plastic chairs, taking a few seconds to adjust to the centimeter-wide gap that bisects each white or red seat. Gerli joined us, having just checked in on a pair of diners nearby the infamous baby grand. In his Italian accent, he began with a thank you, and our interview began.
On The Menu Editors: Tell us about your favorite meal and how it has influenced you as a professional in the food industry.
Antonio Gerli: “It is not easy to say I have one best meal. Maybe I have 10 best meals. I cannot tell you this is my first, this is my second. I can maybe tell you five or six.” Antonio then went on to tally some of those best meals, one lauded with a trio of Michelin stars. “Of course, all these restaurants I went with Elisabetta, my wife, because we have the passion of the food always.”
OTM: How did you and your wife and business partner, Elisabetta, meet?
AG: “In the University of Padua, yeah, we went to the same university, one of the oldest, and we met there and we graduate like a week difference and then we get married the next week so it was a pretty intense 15 days.”
OTM: What got you into cooking?
AG: “My mother, her priority is to make food for us. When I call her now (I’m going for a couple of weeks in June) and I tell her, ‘So, Mother, I’m coming in June.’ I think if you call 100 mothers, the first thing they’d ask you is when you come, how long you stay. My mother says, ‘What do you want to eat?’” Antonio leans back and gives out a robust laugh. “So I grew up with this mentality. She’s from Sicily and most of the recipes we have here are from her and my grandma.”
OTM: Other than your mother, what has inspired your menu?
AG: “Maybe it was crazy, but my idea was in the beginning to open like more Italian food — real, authentic Italian cuisine, but of course as a business, I have to follow what the customer wants. So we add something that is like a fusion between Italian food and American food — for example, the chicken parmesan we eat separately [from spaghetti] in Italy, but here we eat with the spaghetti. It’s like when you go to a Chinese restaurant and order orange chicken. If you go in Beijing you cannot find orange chicken. It’s good, you can like it you cannot, but it’s not authentic Chinese. I accept every critic that’s my first, the top of my list, because with critics I can grow, if everyone comes here and goes, ‘Oh, this is great, everything is great,’ I don’t change anything. I cannot grow.”
My priority is the customer service, and I try my best. So every time someone comes here, I want to go back and ask, ‘Is everything okay?’ and I hope I hear back yes or no so I can improve. — Antonio Gerli
OTM: How has your location in Isla Vista influenced your food?
AG: “Because I am in a college [town], my idea is I want to give something bold, something new, fresh with a modern décor … 80 percent of my customer is kids, so I think they prefer something newer, but the food, the dishes, are the tradition of Italy. So if you close your eyes you think you are in the ’50s but you open your eyes, and no you are in 2015.”
OTM: Speaking of décor, can you tell us about what you have on the walls?
AG: “I stay here 14 hours a day, seven days a week. I have a family, I have three kids, so what I want to have here is something from my life. So on the walls, I put something to remember that I have a life that’s not just a restaurant. Some pictures are where I went and traveled in the world someplace. Here I have T-shirts because I used to run marathons before I run the restaurant. I did 17 marathons and somewhere between 50 and 100 half-marathons.”
OTM: Okay, so let’s talk about the piano.
AG: “It’s a baby grand piano, a Steinman. I know it looks weird to find here in Isla Vista, but why? Because you think in Isla Vista you have to only find cheap place? Why? I know it costs more than a beautiful car, but who cares, someone can play, and play great — believe me, I can show you here if you want.” Antonio pulls out his iPhone and begins scrolling through videos before finally selecting one. “So, when I listen, this really my heart is full of joy because the piano is one of my passions, so I know there aren’t 100 people that can play like him,” he points to the grinning man on the little screen who plays a vaudeville-style tune, “but I need one a month, and I’m happy.”
OTM: There was obviously quite a lot of Internet traffic after the opinion piece went online. Why do you think you have so many advocates for your restaurant?
AG: “When you write, it has more power than when you talk, especially in a newspaper. So what I did is I post on my Facebook the article and asked people for their opinions. To be honest, I didn’t expect like 60 comments like that. So I told my wife when we are upset, when we are tired, when we need a break or energy, we can read the comments because they are 100 percent genuine, and that’s what my customer thinks of me. Again, it fills my heart of joy. So the next day after reading [them], I slept. Of course there is always to improve always always never stop don’t stop because if you stop you die.”
OTM: Let’s end on an easy one. What does Italian food mean to you?
AG: “Everything. No, really. I love the ingredients. I love to go the grocery almost every day because I don’t have a freezer, (the only freezer we have is for the gelato, so every day we prepare fresh). I love to see how the ingredients become a dish. I grew up with my mother cooking all and the food, the wine … You know why I succeed? It’s because I have passion. When you have passion, everything is easy.”