The Interview: Chef Tony Mantuano

Chef Tony Mantuano was born in Wisconsin but got his start in Italy, where he worked at several of the country's Michelin-starred restaurants. In 1984 he opened Spiaggia in Chicago, which remains the city's only four-star Italian restaurant, was named #59 in The Daily Meal's 101 Best Restaurants in America for 2012 list, and won the Chicago Tribune's highest culinary prize, the Good Eating Award. Mantuano has won more awards than can be counted, including the 2005 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest, and was named Food & Wine's Best New Chef in 1984. His The Spiaggia Cookbook was also named one of the top 25 cookbooks of 2004 by Food & Wine magazine. President Obama has been known to frequent Spiaggia, and celebrated his 2008 election victory there. Mantuano also was one of the finalists on Top Chef Masters season two. 

Mantuano is also proud to serve as a mentor, judge, and spokesperson for the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition.

This week he talked with The Daily Meal to answer some questions about his experiences, successes, and failures.

What was your first restaurant industry job?

My first, first job was making deep-dish pizza when I was 18 or 19 at a pizzeria in Milwaukee. But the first job that began developing my career was working with Swiss chef Kurt Weber, who had several restaurants in Milwaukee. I completed a five-year apprenticeship program.

When you first walk into a restaurant, what do you look for as signs that it's well-run, will be a good experience, etc.?

I look for sincerity at the front door. The team that greets you upon entering a restaurant is vital. Are they happy to see me? Are they welcoming? Are they setting me up for a great dining experience?

Is there anything you absolutely hate cooking?

Not really, I love cooking everything.

If one chef from history could prepare one dish for you, what would it be?

Whoever the chef is that first created spaghetti carbonara — the true Roman way. I would want to have that prepared for me.

What do you consider to be your biggest success as a chef?

I've been fortunate to have many successes over the years. Winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef was one moment I'll never forget, as well as receiving the keys to the city in Molise, Italy, for being an ambassador of Italian culture. Also, mentoring the young talent at Spiaggia and my other restaurants; molding them into the next generation of great chefs is highly gratifying.

What do you consider to be your biggest failure as a chef?

Maybe that I never learned how to cook Asian cuisines.

What is the most transcendental dining experience you've ever had?

Most recently, it was having dinner at Ristorante Quadri in Piazza San Marco in Venice. It was so perfect, from the service to the wine to the food and the hospitality. You're in one of the most unbelievable settings, a 400-year-old restaurant, overlooking one of the most famous squares in the world and having an incredible dining experience. Everything was wonderful, with one unbelievable standout being a risotto dish made from a fish the Venetians call "go." I did something that I've never done before, especially not while traveling abroad — I went back the next night.

 Are there any foods you will never eat?

Melon or cucumbers — they don't sit so well. Other than that, nothing else is on my do-not-eat list.

Is there a story that, in your opinion, sums up how interesting the restaurant industry can be?

I probably know six married couples that met at Spiaggia. I love that about our industry. Also, the ability to share our food with the people, whether it's new guests, regulars, or the notable names. I've cooked for presidents, heads of state, and some of the biggest names in entertainment, from Paul McCartney to Elton John and Lady Gaga, and more.

Dan Myers is the Eat/Dine Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @sirmyers.