Head Women's Basketball Coach at University of Connecticut/US Olympic Team & Co-Proprietor of Geno’s Grille in Storrs, CT
Tell me a little about the history and background of the restaurant.
We make Italian food the old-fashioned way. We even use my 83-year-old mother’s recipe for marinara, which we also sell at the restaurant. Our kitchen, led by chef, Nicola Maggioni, prepares an Italian-American menu of pizza, pasta, steaks, seafood and burgers.
When you come in, we place a sweet pea and Parmesan mash on every table, served with olive oil and bread. You can order anything from a pizza margherita, with a thin crust, drizzled with pesto, to a cream-based seafood bisque full of scallops, shrimp, squid and sweet corn, topped with green herbs and wafers of Parmesan, to pasta all’amatriciana, pan-roasted bits of smoked bacon mixed with tomatoes, thick slices of onion and pecorino, with long tubular pasta shaped like church tapers, called candeles.
Where did the idea for Geno’s Grille originate?
Well, being so close to the university, we wanted a place that would appeal to moms and dads. There’s a tremendous need for fine dining in the community. We didn’t necessarily want to make this a college hang-out. There are already enough of those! We created Geno’s Grille for the people who live within a half-hour or 40 minutes from Storrs and want a good meal out. It’s not that we don’t want the college students.
Those kids who want to go out on a date and go to a nice place, we’re here for them. And obviously, when their parents are in town. So our idea was to build it accordingly and price it accordingly. We wanted it to be a place that was popular even when school wasn't in session, like during the summer months. The community has really embraced it. There are great restaurants in this area, West Hartford and Max’s, and they're worth the drive. But I also thought that east of the river, where we live, why can't we have a place like that, too?
Where did you get your staff?
I'm a basketball coach first and foremost but my second passion is, I love to eat, I love great wine, and we heard about this chef and went to some tastings and that was it! When you're dealing with chefs, it's like dealing with a superstar player — they could either be really high-maintenance, or they could be great and still be team players. And he's great and he understands the team. When you're in the kitchen, you can feel it. You can see the way Nicola runs the kitchen and the way he talks to the staff. It's tight quarters, it's not a big kitchen. So he's got to be able to get along with everybody, and you could tell right away that he does.
How did it come about that you decided to locate near the university?
As you know, we already have a restaurant at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut but I always wanted to have a place near campus because I thought there was a great need. Then, when the development of this Storrs center became a reality, they approached us and said, hey, we've got a space that we think will be great for you guys, come take a look at it. And then it was, let's put this thing together. Let's get an architect. Let's get an interior designer, let's get everybody together. And it was a great collaboration and I think we ended up in the perfect spot.
How does Geno’s Grille differ from your restaurant at the casino?
It’s two totally different audiences. At the casino we wanted to make a place where people could go in, grab something and then get back to the entertainment that the casino provides. Geno’s Grille in Storrs gives us an opportunity to be a little more creative, a place where you could come, enjoy yourself, relax, be with friends. I’m not naive enough to think that we could take a four-star restaurant from New York and say hey, we got the exact same thing up in Storrs. That’s not what we're striving for. But we wanted to give it a feel of; you're not in New York. But guess what, you're not in Storrs any more, either, when you walk in here.
How did you decide on the details – how big to make the bar, how much television to put in there? How ‘sports bar’ did you want it be?
It just evolved over time. Some, trial and error. But in the beginning, it was certainly, ‘this is not going to be a sports bar.’ So then, what kind of space are we dealing with? And the space told us how big the bar was going to be. You know, do we want to make it a bar? Or do we want to make it a restaurant? I wanted it to be a restaurant with a really nice bar, as opposed to a great bar that serves food.
How do you satisfy your passion for wine?
One of the first things I do when I go into a restaurant is to say, okay, what's the wine list trying to tell me? Hey, we really enjoy serving you wine and we want to make it so that you'll order a bunch of it? Or look, we know how much money we can make on wine and we're going to try to do that. And it's a fine line between having a really affordable, really, really good wine list that's pretty balanced and diverse and appeals to a lot of tastes, yet isn’t going to gouge our customers. My thinking was, every couple or every group or every person who comes in here should want to have a glass or a bottle of wine with friends and when they look at the wine list and the prices, they shouldn't be intimidated by it.
Do you have your own wine label?
Yes. We have four wines that we import from Italy – a Prosecco; a Pinot Grigio, a white wine that everyone seems to enjoy, and then we have a Rosso from Puglia, which has gotten rave, rave reviews. Finally, we've got a Cabernet/Merlot blend. We also have Champagne, for before- and after- dinner drinks and celebrations.
Do you think you’ll have more Geno’s Grilles?
We're already sending checks back to our investors, so it's a concept that works, that could work in a variety of places. And if we could find the right places, it's something that we want to try to duplicate, branching out to different parts of the state. That’s ultimately what we hope to accomplish. But no matter where you live, good food at a good price in a really good atmosphere can be successful anywhere. I want people to feel, when they’re done, hey, I just had a great meal. I paid what I should have paid, and I feel really good about it.
What is it you hope to accomplish most with this restaurant?
You want to be real, you want to be authentic. You want to have the kind of food that makes people say, hey this is truly Italian food made by a real Italian chef. And yet at the same time, you want to be able to add a little touch, your own signature. That’s what we believe we’ve done here.