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Recession-Proof Pasta? : Owners of Chic Italian Chain to Open New Restaurant in South Coast Plaza

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If they had chosen a different name for their growing restaurant business, a good choice might have been “Five Guys From Italy.”

Next month, when they open a new restaurant called Emporio Armani Express in South Coast Plaza, the five businessmen will have three Italian restaurants at or near the giant Costa Mesa shopping mall. Their flagship business, the stylish L’Opera restaurant, is in downtown Long Beach. And they are exploring the possibility of bringing New York’s Planet Hollywood restaurant, a celebrity haunt filled with movie memorabilia, to Orange County.

While some may question the wisdom of opening expensive restaurants in the midst of a recession, the partners of Long Beach-based Italatin Inc. remain undaunted. They have opened their eateries at a time when restaurants are struggling from the recession and many consumers are saving money by eating at home.

Their secret: chic, contemporary interiors and menus that tap the current popularity of Italian food as a low-fat, healthy cuisine.

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The formula seems to be working. The restaurant enterprise expects sales of $12 million this year; company officials won’t discuss profits.

The company operates Antonello Ristorante in the South Coast Village, founded 12 years ago by Italatin partner Antonio Cagnolo. It recently opened the informal Trattoria Spiga in the Crystal Court mall--the former site of the Gianni restaurant--and plans to open the Emporio Armani Express restaurant later this month.

The company’s most successful venture to date is L’Opera, an elegant Italian restaurant located in a renovated bank building. It was the group’s first big gamble: whether a ritzy, European-style restaurant could gain a clientele in an aging downtown with little night life.

Terry Antonelli, who lives in Long Beach, liked the site and showed it to his partners. At the time, other upscale eateries in that part of the city were lucky to get 40 customers a night, said partner Enzo De Muro.

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But the partners were convinced that their highly visible location on the city’s rejuvenated Pine Avenue near the Los Angeles-Long Beach light-rail line would draw customers. Built at a cost of $2.4 million, L’Opera draws upward of 250 patrons a night, he said.

Its success has given the partners encouragement during the recession. “This is the right time to grow because it’s when you can do the better deals,” De Muro said. The group plans to open a Spanish/Latin-themed restaurant called Alegria a block south of L’Opera next spring.

“We’re about 80% of where we want to be,” said partner David Maffai, a developer and apparel factory owner who is a longtime friend of Cagnolo.

Each of the partners plays a different role in the business. Besides being president of Italatin, Antonelli is also president of All American Van Lines Inc. in Fullerton. Owning a restaurant has always been “kind of a dream,” he says.

Maffai, a developer and construction company owner, supervises the building and renovation of the restaurant sites. Cagnolo and De Muro direct the restaurant operations. And Frank Di Bella, a Whittier accountant, keeps the books.

Italatin is tapping the market for one of the nation’s fastest-growing restaurant cuisines--Italian. But there is plenty of competition. The Emporio Armani Express restaurant, which will be next door to a new Emporio Armani clothing store, will be one of 10 Italian restaurants in the South Coast Plaza, Crystal Court and South Coast Village developments. A new eatery, Piccola Cucina, will open as an adjunct to the Barneys New York clothing store next spring.

But neighboring restaurants don’t seem too bothered by the prospect of more competition. “I think there’s enough room for everybody,” said John Lopes, manager of the Pronto Grill in South Coast Plaza. “There’s not too many. People love Italian food.”


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