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Consistency of quality, service and staff are keys to Mario’s success

Mario Libertini is owner of La Piazza, a large-scale, authentically-themed Italian dining precinct nestled within the environs of Bankstown Sports Club. Recently voted among Sydney’s top five restaurants by a Daily Telegraph/Channel 7 poll, La Piazza is the recipient of a long line of awards, including Best Pizza in Sydney’s West for 2016. Currently the business is running a competition in celebration of its 10th anniversary, giving diners a chance to win a dinner for ten in its Vino wine cellar. Foodservice Rep spoke to Mario to find out the story behind the success.

 

“I was always interested in food and cooking but I sort of fell into the industry,” Mario confesses. “I had gone away for a holiday to Italy and tried out for a soccer team, when my brother opened up a restaurant, Il Bucco in Enfield, and asked me to come back home and help him out. So in 1979 I started at the bottom, working for him as a dishwasher, then did some waitering and moved up from there.”

By the age of 19 Mario had started taking on managerial duties around the restaurant, which his brother had sold to his then-business partner. Mario stayed on as manager for another two years, when the opportunity came along to buy it.

For Mario this was too good to pass up, even though, as he says, “I thought I knew a lot then, but I ended up learning a lot along the way. I certainly knew how to look after customers, how the food should come out – but it’s what you need to know on the administrative side of the business that counts when you’re the owner. So I had to learn how to be a businessman rather than just a restaurateur. It was a bit easier back in those days because there were less rules and regulations, so it wasn’t too daunting but it was still a challenge. Having said that, I was lucky enough to take over a restaurant which had a good clientele so I was building upon a solid foundation.”

Il Bucco served traditional Italian cuisine – “it was a little hole in the wall place, and in fact ‘il bucco’ is Italian for ‘the hole’. We could only fit 40 or 50 people until 1997, when I took over the premises next door and expanded and renovated. But it was a very well known restaurant at the time, an iconic eatery in the local area for many years.”

Mario attributes this to the combination of quality food and service – “we had good home style Italian cuisine, I was always front of house and had a very good rapport with the customers – it was like a family.”

It was business as usual for Mario and his team at Il Bucco up until 2004, when he was approached by the management of Bankstown Sports Club to start up a venue. “They dined at Il Bucco on a regular basis along with some people from Paynter Dixon Constructions who were involved in the building of La Piazza. They approached me to see if I might be interested in moving my business into the club as part of their planned expansion, so I went over and had a look.

“The area they were planning to put me in was not the area I envisaged as La Piazza – at the time the plan was to put in a themed Irish pub in that section. But I said, maybe we could do something a little bit more original than that, and from there the idea for La Piazza was born.

“This was around the time that the Italian forum was built in Leichardt, and I thought it really wasn’t that authentic – it didn’t represent in my mind how an Italian piazza should look, so I said let’s create something that genuinely evokes the Italian ambience and atmosphere here at the club.

Mario says the biggest risk for the concept was the club’s location in Bankstown – would people in the local area lend their support to a major themed Italian eatery? “But as John McKay, the club CEO at the time said – if we build it they will come, it doesn’t matter where we are.”

To turn Mario’s concept into reality, he and a delegation from the club visited Las Vegas to take a look at some of the stylishly themed dining spots within major casinos. Mario followed this up with a 2006 visit to Italy – “I wanted to get some photos of how the theming should look, to make it as authentic as possible, so I visited Italian towns and villages and took around 600 images which I sent back to the project manager.”

By the end of 2006 Mario had sold Il Bucco to concentrate on planning the venture: “It was really a joint idea between myself and the club, inspired by a desire to create something that Sydney didn’t have. Obviously, whatever your dreams are, it takes good people to bring them to fruition and Paynter Dixon did a marvellous job in putting it together.”

With construction completed, La Piazza opened in 2007 encompassing several separately branded dining areas. “La Piazza is the dining precinct and within that you have Stuzzichino which is our a la carte section selling a nice array of Italian tapas, seafood, pastas and traditional Italian meals, Pizzeria Bellucci which is our casual dining pizza restaurant which also has other meals, and we also have a pasticceria which sells cakes and gelato.

“We wanted to diversify and this layout lends itself to that. The idea was to created the kind of variety you would have in an Italian piazza – you can choose where you want to eat.”

It’s a largescale and busy operation – La Piazza has around 75 staff members on a rotating roster, and accommodates around 460 diners. “On a Saturday night we might possibly do around twelve to fourteen hundred covers. Mother’s Day is our busiest time, where we do in excess of 2800 covers which is an incredible amount of meals to come out.”

Mario is keen to share the credit for his success with his staff: “I have fantastic people working with me, and you need an exceptional team to be able to cater for that amount of people especially when you’re doing a la carte. You can only do so much yourself – it’s the people around you that make you look good. I had a lot of sleepless nights, I must say, coming from a small restaurant that barely sat a hundred to a place with the immensity of La Piazza. But the challenge was there and I didn’t want to die wondering whether I could have tackled it, so that’s why I threw myself in the deep end.”

La Piazza has proven itself not only a strong success but a big drawcard for the club – membership increased significantly over its first 12 months of operation. “I’m very proud to be associated with it, and not only does it bring in diners but it also helps the entire club which as a consequence has opened up other eateries as well.

“La Piazza has become a destination for a lot of people, and probably in some ways it’s put Bankstown eateries on the map. Many years ago you wouldn’t think of going there to have something to eat, but we have put the Italian food stamp on Bankstown for sure. We get people coming from all over Sydney to dine at La Piazza, which to me is the biggest accolade that anyone can give you – that they come from afar to try your food and sample the experience.”

Over its 10 years of operation, the menu has naturally evolved somewhat, but Mario emphasises “you have to be mindful not to get rid of the dishes that people come back regularly for. I remember going once to a restaurant in Kings Cross that had a particular dish that I loved, and I’d told all my friends about it, and I when I went back that dish wasn’t there anymore. We’ve all had that experience, so I decided that our dishes have made us who we are today so you need to create a nucleus of dishes that you work around. We’ll have specials and introduce some new items, but we want to keep the menu as close as possible to what’s attracted our clientele in the first place. They might go to other Italian restaurants for their lasagne or veal parmigiana, but they’ll come to us because we’re the only ones who make Linguini Piazza. So planning a menu is very fickle because you have to create the balance between new dishes and those that might your success. It’s the same with pizzas – we haven’t changed many, we’ve introduced some new ones but people come in for their favourites and you have to have them or all hell breaks loose!”

But Mario doesn’t attribute La Piazza’s enduring success just to the food or the location: “I think it’s a combination of many things. A good restaurant needs a good balance of front of house and back of house, and also a great deal of stability, so the fact that we’ve had low turnover of staff in key positions has certainly helped our longevity. The fact that people see myself and my waiters regularly – so it’s the same faces, the drinks waiter knows what your usual is, the staff have that rapport with the customers, and that’s what makes them comfortable.

“A successful restaurant is a balance of good food, good service and most of all that interaction with the customer – making them feel they’re at home, they’re part of the La Piazza family. You can’t have good food without good front of house – the people at the front are the first contact with the customer, and it’s vital that they make them feel comfortable. Sometimes a smiling face is all it takes. We’re very fortunate to have an ambience and atmosphere that most places don’t, plus when people come in they’re getting consistency in food and in service, and that’s what I’m a stickler for more than anything else.”

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