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From Italy to Palo Alto

The ins and outs of owning a restaurant, through the eyes of Rocco Scordella

Soon after Rocco Scordella moved from his native Italy to take a job at famed chef Mario Batali's Del Posto in New York City in 2005, a transit strike shut down his commute from Queens into Manhattan. So Scordella walked two-and-a-half hours in the snow to get to the restaurant each day.

"I didn't want to miss the job," he said.

This matter-of-fact dedication paid off, as Scordella -- who spoke no English when he arrived at Del Posto -- moved up through the ranks, becoming a "captain" overseeing his own section of the restaurant. Del Posto earned two Michelin stars the first year he was there. At 24 years old, he had accomplished his dream of working in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

The threads that connect Scordella's career from then to today -- his Italian roots, a philosophy that espouses simplicity and quality and a passion for the ins and outs of running a restaurant -- are evidenced in his two Palo Alto restaurants, Tootsie's and Vina Enoteca.

Scordella was born in Salento Puglia in Southern Italy, but grew up in Porretta Terme, a small town of about 2,000 people located between Florence and Bologna. His first restaurant job was as a server at a large hotel-restaurant. He was 13 years old.

At 14, students in Italy can choose to attend schools focused on different areas designed to prepare them to go onto college, such as arts, science or vocational school. Scordella chose a five-year culinary school program. The first three years, students learn about the front and back of the house, then decide which area they wanted to focus on.

Scordella opted for the kitchen, but said he would alternate summers working in the front and back of the house. He always thought conquering both was important "if you want to open your own business."

After graduating, he spent a brief stint at a small trattoria in Manchester, England (he spoke no English and hated the weather), then worked as a bartender in Paris before moving to New York City. He met his future wife and business partner, Shannon, at Del Posto. (Shannon, a native of San Carlos, had moved to New York herself to become a chef.)

The two eventually moved to California and together opened Tootsie's in 2009. Last year, their second act came in the form of Vina Enoteca, a farm-to-table Italian restaurant.

Scordella -- young, approachable and energetic -- described his cooking philosophy as "keep it simple and keep it fresh."

California, and the Bay Area in particular, is much like Italy in that chefs have access to high-quality ingredients grown close by, Scordella said. He said he doesn't see the point in using out-of-season, far-away ingredients.

"These days it's very important ask the farmer what they have available and then come up with a dish rather than the opposite," Scordella said. "You may have a great dish but without the great ingredients, it's not going to taste like anything."

The Vina Enoteca menu regularly draws from produce grown about a mile away at Stanford University's O'Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm. Scordella said he is in talks with Stanford to build a new 7-acre garden that would supply his restaurants. Other vendors that the restaurant buys from are listed on the dinner menu. Pasta, bread and pastries are all made in-house.

While the Vina Enoteca menu heavily features Italian classics like pasta bolognese and Margherita pizza, Scordella has no qualms about the fact that it is not a truly authentic Italian restaurant. It was the first restaurant on the Peninsula to serve the meatless Impossible Burger, which quickly became a popular menu item, he said. Scordella said he was skeptical when he first tried the plant-based burger, but is now playing with it like any other ingredient, creating a bolognese sauce and a meatball sandwich.

"In America, you can't be strictly 100 percent Italian," he said. "The Impossible Burger is kind of an American twist. We have to give the customer what they like, if you want to pay the bills."

These days, Scordella is more owner than chef -- he's primarily found on the floor during lunch and dinner services, talking with customers and problem-solving with staff -- but he is heavily involved in all aspects of the restaurant. He collaborates with Vina Enoteca's new executive chef, Nadiv Geiger from Michelin-starred The Village Pub in Woodside, on new menu items. He also steps in when needed; he has filled in as pastry chef, events coordinator and sommelier.

Scordella believes in being a present and responsive owner, something instilled in him during culinary school in Italy. In this day and age, that extends beyond the walls of his restaurants. The first thing he does every morning is Google Tootsie's and Vina Enoteca. He regularly responds to negative views on Yelp.

"Sometimes they (customers) say things that could be helpful -- what you don't see or you don't pay attention to," he said, "and other times, it's just people trying to find something (wrong)."

He doesn't shy away from calling Yelpers out on their "BS." A recent poster wrote that she is "reconsidering" her friendship with a coworker who loves Vina Enoteca. She called the caprese salad "basic," the Margherita pizza "oddly sour and sweet" and the panna cotta "the biggest disappointment: White gelatin with orange marmalade."

"No need to lose a friend over a panna cotta," Scordella wrote in response. "Caprese salad (is) supposed to be basic, (it) is all about the tomatoes."

In response to another negative review, he apologized for missteps in service, said he would show the review to his staff and gave his email for the poster to contact him directly.

Despite running two restaurants, raising three young children and getting about five hours of sleep each night, Scordella is hungry to do more on the Peninsula. He said he plans to remodel Tootsie's soon and expand it to more locations in the area. A pipe dream is to open a speakeasy, but he said he knows he would end up working even later than he does at the restaurants.

Lightning round: The Weekly asked Scordella a series of and-or questions related to food, drink and more. Find out his answers below.

• Pesto or bolognese? Bolognese.

• Red or white pizza? White.

• Aperol spritz or negroni? Negroni, all the time.

• Mario Batali or Alice Waters? Alice Waters.

• Stanford or Cal? Stanford.

• In-N-Out or Impossible Burger? That's a tough one. Impossible Burger. I love In-N-Out, but every time you go to In-N-Out, right after you're like, 'Why did I do it?'

• Butter or olive oil? Olive oil, all the way.

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