January 27 2012
“For most businessmen, eating out is simply about meeting clients in an informal setting and getting some sustenance at the same time. But for me, it’s a little different, as my clients include some of the world’s leading restaurateurs and hoteliers.
When I’m travelling I like to put in an appearance at “my” restaurants and hotels, to introduce myself or renew existing friendships – sometimes alone, more often with local Illycaffè contacts. This means that I don’t always dine with the person I’ve gone to the restaurant to see, as they are often greeting guests or checking orders. But watching a top-flight restaurant manager at work is a real pleasure – these guys are artists.
I find eating out a profound sensory pleasure. Smell, taste, touch, sight and even sound all work together in a meal to create a sensation of wellbeing that is one of life’s great pleasures. And when business clients come to visit me in Trieste, it’s great to be able to offer this in its best form. However, I believe that actual deals should be done inside offices, inside companies. It’s not elegant to negotiate over the table. Eating together is about building a relationship.
All sorts of people come to see us at our headquarters. I think of them as stakeholders: they might be coffee growers, espresso machine manufacturers, artists we’re working with on our coffee-cup series, or people doing courses at our Università del Caffè. The other day we even had a regional delegation of carabinieri.
I take visitors to eat in the company canteen, as most of them appreciate a break from long, heavy business lunches. Visitors from abroad generally order simple Italian classics such as ham and melon, or risotto with spring greens, but we also serve local Triestine dishes, such as jota, a winter soup of beans, potatoes and crauti (pickled cabbage).
One visitor we had here was Francis Ford Coppola. My father and I had once been to his house in California, where we ended up fixing his professional espresso machine. He came to visit us in Trieste and wanted to find the perfect pizza recipe for one of his restaurants, so I organised an impromptu pizza-making course at a local place called Il Capriccio, which has a fantastic Neapolitan pizzaiolo.
My other favourite Triestine restaurants are Al Bagatto, which does the best fish you’re likely to find anywhere; and the magnificent Harry’s Grill in Piazza dell’Unità – one of the world’s most beautiful squares, open to the seafront on one side, and a magical spot at sunset. I’ll sometimes take clients here, though I try to keep it more private, as my wife and I love to eat here.
I don’t always opt for upscale restaurants, though among the classics I’d have to mention The Four Seasons in New York – it’s a design legend, but the food and service are also excellent – and of course, Le Cirque. The owner, Sirio Maccioni, is a reference point among restaurateurs. Locanda Locatelli in London serves the world’s best fettuccine con le fave (with broad beans). In Paris, I might visit Le Grand Véfour or L’Espadon at lunch, but in the evening I prefer a more relaxed, contemporary venue, such as Le Carré des Feuillants.
The most rewarding business relationship I’ve forged over a meal was with Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, when we met to talk about joining forces on Illy Issimo, a ready-to-drink coffee product. He picked the venue: the restaurant of the Villa Condulmer hotel in Treviso, a place of old-fashioned opulence and a magnet for north-eastern Italy. I wouldn’t have expected any less of him: Kent’s managerial style is all about anticipating the other person’s preferences. In fact, I was so focused on his finesse that I’ve no idea what we ate.”