For over 16 years, Felix and Bianca Milano and their children, Michael Milano and Cathy (Milano) Schneider have owned and operated Milano’s Italian Restaurant in Columbus, OH. Michael recently published the book “WORK – The Reality of Operating a Successful Independent Restaurant,” available this spring on Amazon. Recently, La Gazzetta sat down with Michael to hear his story.
La Gazzetta (LG): Tell us about your Italian heritage.
Michael Milano (MM): My family is from the Molise region of Italy. Both of my parents are from the same small village: Cerreto di Vastogirardi in the province of Isernia. My nonna still lives there along with my Zia and my first cousins. My Dad immigrated to Columbus when he was 14 back in the 1950’s. My Mom immigrated in 1970, when she was 19, to marry my Dad. I was born in 1972 in Columbus as a first-generation Italian American.
LG: How did your family get in to the restaurant business?
MM: My Dad has always been in the restaurant business: as a busboy in a local Italian Restaurant when he was younger to a bartender/manager of his cousin’s Italian restaurant to the owner of Milano’s Italian Restaurant today. My Mom has also worked in restaurants throughout her life here in America as well as being a great cook at home (teaching my sister and I all the traditional recipes from the old country as well as new dishes picked up in our travels through Italy). I went to The Ohio State University for a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and International Studies before attending graduate school at St. John’s University in Queens, NY for a Master’s degree in International Law and Diplomacy. I have been working since I was 16; first in a local supermarket and, after graduating school in NY, at a local bank. My parents bought Milano’s Italian Restaurant while I was working at the bank and I decided to go ahead and devote my entire life to the restaurant business. I have always worked in customer service, have always cooked and have always worked a lot of hours in my life. It has been a great asset to have these strengths while running a restaurant.
LG: Tell us about Milano’s Italian Restaurant.
MM: We have a lot of the traditional Italian American dishes, such as Spaghetti and Meatballs and Chicken Parmigiana, along with a lot of the more non-traditional dishes, such as Puttanesca and Carbonara. We have a large menu consisting of seafood, a children’s menu, bruschette appetizers, and steaks, but our focus is on all kinds of pasta dishes.
LG: Italian restaurants are easy to come by these days. What makes Milano’s stand out?
MM: I think it stands out from other restaurants, especially in the Columbus area, because of our personal service, more affordable pricing and attention to the quality and diversity in our food. We are rustic traditional with a touch of the modern. I like to stick to the basics in Italian cooking. As I discuss in the book, a lot of restaurants are still trying to be part of the “la nuova cucina” type of cooking while we tend to favor the Casalinga types of Italian food. I like the simplicity of ingredients to create wonderful Italian dishes. One of my favorite taglines I created for our menu is: “quando si mangia semplici, si mangia bene.” I am proud of how our restaurant has kept the same vision it has had from the beginning but has also improved through the years in its menu and offerings. We also have a solid, loyal staff that helps us keep our consistency in implementing our ideas. Through my Italian American heritage and through the constant traveling I do to Italy, we’ve come up with many dishes reflecting a diverse menu.
LG: You mentioned your travels to Italy. How does that influence the menu at Milano’s?
MM: I travel to Italy almost every year for new ideas. I always visit my family but I also try and visit a different region of Italy every time I go to immerse myself in that culture, even for a short time to see what music they are listening to, the way the language changes from region to region and what they are eating. These ideas allow me to bring my experiences to our restaurant and that allows our customers to be that much closer to feeling like they are in Italy.
LG: Can you give us some insight into the Italian demographic in Columbus?
MM: When the wave of immigration hit after WWII, many of my relatives moved to Columbus. One family came and many others followed because they knew each other. As a first-generation American, I am always interested in learning about the immigrant experience. These experiences are known from people in almost every city in America, each with their own stories. In Columbus, most Italians settled in areas such as Grandview, Marble Cliff and the Italian Village. Although many families have since spread out more within Columbus’ city limits and suburbs, there are still many living in these areas today.
LG: Milano’s is clearly a successful restaurant, but what inspired you to write the book?
MM: Over the years I kept compiling information from discussions with my parents, customers and employees, as well as my own experiences of just working, as to how a restaurant should be run. I hoped to be a voice for other independently operated owners who would learn something from the book. I thought there was a story of managers/owners that was not seen today. You always hear about chefs, chains restaurants, back of the house stories, and giant expansionist restauranteurs. I don’t think there’s ever been a story about your average small business restaurant owner trying to make something of themselves in this industry. We have to be mindful not only of a particular tree but of the entire forest. It is difficult work but it’s very rewarding.
LG: Can you tell us more about the book?
MM: The book is about how to run a successful independent restaurant. These days I believe restaurants, at least in Columbus, are trending towards being smaller and independently run. Chains are less relevant and the small independent casual restaurants are on the rise. A lot has to do with more ethnic restaurants opening. Also, as suburbs are more populated, people seem to stay within their boundaries and don’t take the time to travel across town for a restaurant, thereby making larger restaurants, chain or otherwise, obsolete. I discuss how important it is to have certain relationships in the business to help one succeed, such as with employees, customers and vendors. I discuss how important it is for a business to have a vision before opening to show customers what you are trying to present. At the beginning of the book, I show how our vision at Milano’s Italian Restaurant originated through the combinations of our family history and the history of Italy and its food. Not only the food typically seen in Italy but also how that food was transformed through the immigrants coming to the U.S. All these components bring about the Milano’s Italian Restaurant vision and its subsequent success. I combined all of these pieces and more to create a guide to assist others in running a successful independent restaurant.
Michael and his wife, Maria, recently welcomed their first child, Marco, to their family. Readers can find Michael’s book “WORK – The Reality of Operating a Successful Independent Restaurant” on Amazon.
Milano’s Italian Restaurant,
6916 East Broad Street, Columbus,
Ohio 43213, www.milanosohio.com.