Fabio Viviani has charisma. When the celebrity chef walks into a room, he takes a moment to greet everyone — ladies with a kiss on the cheek or hand, gents with a handshake. Between his trademark smile and native Italian accent, Viviani leaves almost every woman in the room a little weak-kneed in his wake, though winning hearts is hardly his intention; it’s just who he is. “Since I was young, I’ve had an enormous respect for women. They were always the pillar of our household,” says Viviani.
The 35-year-old chef, who shot to fame as one of the final four contestants on season five of “Top Chef,” is set to bring his charms to Chicago on a regular basis. He’s teamed up with restaurateurs David Rekhson and Lucas Stoioff of DineAmic hospitality group — the team behind Bull & Bear and Public House — for their new venture, a modern Italian restaurant in River North dubbed Siena Tavern.
“It’s Italian-inspired,” says Viviani of the 230-seat spot. “There are five or six dishes that are as Italian as it gets, but with [the rest of the menu] we wanted to use traditional flavors with a twist. We add that edge that you get when you come down to River North.” Adds Rekhson, “It’s Italian, but it’s still everyday and accessible. You can come here a few times a week and you don’t feel like you just ate a ton of pasta and you’re so full.” Viviani cites the meatball, made with Kobe beef and homemade ricotta cheese, as an example of a traditional dish that has been modernized. “We make everything from scratch,” he says.
The trio’s partnership kicked off three years ago, when Viviani was in town for work, and the hotel concierge recommended Public House for a beer. Viviani liked the spot so much he asked to meet the owners, and the three struck up a quick friendship. So when Rekhson and Stoioff started toying with the idea of an Italian concept, joining forces with Viviani seemed like a natural fit. “We synergized very well,” says Stoioff. “Even though he’s from a different part of the world, we’re all similar, and we’re all friends, so that makes it fun. And when it’s fun, you get better ideas and you work harder.” For Viviani, it’s an ideal match. “I’ve been in the restaurant business for 25 years,” says the chef, who started working in kitchens in Italy when he was 11. “And bad management is the number one reason people fail in the restaurant industry. These guys have that down.” While DineAmic is working on projects across the country, the fact that they call Chicago their home base was also a selling point for Viviani. “Chicago is the place to be right now if you want to have a good meal. Some of my favorite chefs are based here, and people like to go out — it doesn’t matter how cold it is.”
To garner inspiration for Siena Tavern, the trio went to Italy for a week of research, traveling around Viviani’s homeland to eat, drink and take in the culture. “We got an experience that most Americans don’t get, being with someone who grew up in Tuscany,” says Rekhson. “We ate in Fabio’s house with his parents, and literally, more of our menu inspiration came from his mom than any other restaurant in Italy.” In fact, several dishes at Siena Tavern come straight from the Viviani family, including olive oil-poached potatoes, gnocchi and lasagna that’s been passed down for 13 generations. “Some people try to reinvent the wheel, but there are some dishes that were invented 500 years ago and they’re perfect the way they are,” says Rekhson. It’s safe to say that the trip also solidified their friendship. “I love these guys to pieces, but going out with them in Italy was like going out with two ballerinas,” Viviani jokes. “Fabio wanted to eat gelato and ride in gondolas. We wanted to go out,” Rekhson counters with a laugh. And it turns out Viviani’s popularity is global. “We’re walking around Florence and every five minutes someone comes up to him,” says Stoioff. “When we’re here, it’s twice as much. If we’re walking from Bull & Bear to Siena Tavern, we have to budget extra time for the stopping.”
His instant recognition is hardly surprising, given that he was voted “Fan Favorite” on his season of “Top Chef.” But while he’s grateful for the opportunity, he’s quick to note that for the contestants, reality is a far cry from what Bravo portrays. “I have been very blessed with Bravo, because it exposed the passion for everything I do,” he says. “That said, ‘Top Chef’ is a brand, and they’re trying to promote it with this fairy tale that we are all friends and love each other and get together. When I’m in town, I text Stephanie [Izard, of Girl & the Goat] because I think she’s awesome and I love her food, and Dale [Levitski of Frog n Snail] too. But do I ever see them? No! It was a good experience, but you have to go back to work after the show. I have friendships with people — I’m friends with Richard Blais and Mike Isabella is a great guy — but do we hang out like Bravo would like you to believe? Never.”
Not that Viviani would have the time, anyway. Between running his two restaurants in the L.A. area, Firenze Osteria and Cafe Firenze, and pursuing new ventures with the DineAmic group, he films the Webby Award-winning Yahoo series called “Chow Ciao,” which gets over a million views a week. He also runs a website called Kids Health Cafe (Kidshealthcafe.com), a one-stop shop for parents to find nutrition information and meal ideas for the family. Though he’s based in California, Viviani expects he’ll be in Chicago one or two weeks each month. “You can’t expect to see me 24/7, but you’ll see me enough to understand this is me, it’s not slapping a name on a building,” he says. “If the restaurant doesn’t perform well, it’s my face on it. How much do you think I want to be here to make it successful?” (When he’s away, Bull & Bear and Public House chef David Blonsky will oversee the kitchen.)
At the heart of everything Viviani does is his goal to make people happy. “I try to treat people the way I’d like to be treated from somebody who has had the luck and notoriety,” he says. “Eat a little of my food, I’ll give you a hug and kiss, show you directions, if I can make you happy, great. Whatever I can do. I’m not pretentious. I’m not a celebrity by any means. I just had the luck to showcase my craft on TV and be myself, which is the most important thing.”
Background: The Florence-born chef started working in restaurants when he was 11, attended culinary school when he was 13 and was the sous chef at Florence restaurant Il Pallaio by the time he was 16. In his twenties, he worked in kitchens around Europe and at one point, he owned six restaurants, two clubs and a bed and breakfast in Tuscany. He sold it all to pursue his career in the United States.
TV star: Viviani appeared on “Top Chef: New York” (left), the fifth season of the hit culinary television competition. He was one of the last four standing, just missing out on a trip to the finals. Thanks to his gregarious personality, he was voted “Fan Favorite,” and went on to appear in “Top Chef: All Stars” (above) and “Life After Top Chef.”
The Food: In 2007, Viviani opened Cafe Firenze in Moorpark, Calif. He followed that up in 2009 with Firenze Osteria, a traditional Italian restaurant in North Hollywood. This April, he’ll release a new cookbook, Fabio’s Italian Kitchen.
Status: Viviani is divorced and reportedly dating a Chicagoan.
Mantra: He walks around with a quote in his wallet. “Dear haters. I have so much more for you to be mad at. Just be patient.”
Story by Molly Each | Photos by Anthony Tahlier
Groomer: Sarah Lukasiewicz for Amazing Cosmetics, Stylist: Eric Himel, Shoot Coordinator: Katerina Bizios, Venue: Siena Tavern (51 W. Kinzie)