It Begins and Ends at a Howard Johnson’s
There’s a show that takes place every night on the dining room floor of Tony’s at the J House in Greenwich, Connecticut. The main character is a fast-talking, albeit, a soft-spoken kid at heart from Yonkers, New York. Tony Capasso is what movies are made of – a self-taught, self-made restaurateur who has had to hustle his whole life. Today, Tony has his name on the door of this high-spirited Italian-American steakhouse, an honor bestowed to him by Hotelier/Businessman John Fareri, the owner of the prestigious J House boutique hotel and gathering place.
With a knack for connecting with people and always looking to make a buck, at an early age, Tony Capasso was working the coat check at the local Jewish Community Center and hitting 144 stops on his newspaper route. His outgoing personality made it easy for him to cultivate relationships with his customers, resulting in bonus gigs shoveling driveways.
“I realized early on that in addition to working hard, doing business was all about creating relationships,” says Tony of his natural ability to connect with people, “Whether it’s as simple as remembering their name or their kid’s name, having the same taste in movies, or sharing a common interest, it has served me well throughout my entire career.”
Tony’s entry into the food service industry was as a dishwasher in a Westchester County Howard Johnson’s. He graduated to grill man at the Ground Round up the road, and then found his calling on the dining room floor as a waiter at such family restaurants as Pizza & Brew, Victoria Station, and ultimately, Edmondo’s in Eastchester where Tony worked with renowned restaurateur David Ghatanfard.
“Working the floor was a rush! I loved the fast pace of it all and being a host at my tables. I had fun. I’d try to entertain people. It paid off,” Tony says of always making higher tips than his coworkers.
Tony first made his mark within the Greenwich fine dining scene at the popular Valbella, the restaurant where David Ghatanfard gave him his first position as a maître d’. A true see-and-be-seen locale for high-powered execs, sports and entertainment personalities, and locals, Tony, a consummate professional with a knack for keeping things light and welcoming, was quick with a trivia challenge for the table, all the while taking command of an active dining room and his staff.
In 2010, after 18 years at Valbella, Tony Capasso went on to open the stylish Gabriele’s Italian Steakhouse, where he took on the role of managing partner. Loyal customers followed and soon a whole new clientele emerged as this charismatic restaurateur continued to welcome guests into his dining room.
A dapper dresser, considerate host, and demanding manager, it’s Tony’s reputation for being quick with a trivia challenge that has become his calling card among loyal customers. The trivia stems from a challenge posed by Gary Dell’Abate, the producer of the Howard Stern Show and a regular at Valbella. The two got into a lively conversation about who knew their favorite movie, The Godfather, the best. The competition became so heated, Gary challenged Tony to come on the show and be tested on his Godfather knowledge by Howard. Tony took the challenge seriously and studied up on his Godfather facts for weeks. Needless to say, the fine dining maître d’ from Greenwich crushed it and was a huge hit on the show. Customers began wanting to be quizzed by the trivia king.
“But that was about the Godfather. I knew I had to broaden my repertoire!” And the rest is history.
Today, Tony has a restaurant with his name on it. With that comes the responsibility of taking everything he has learned over the past 40 years and passing it on to his staff. Hospitality remains at the forefront, a lost art that this industry veteran still believes in.
“While I don’t believe you can teach people skills, and I make it a priority to allow the many different personalities of my staff to shine through, this is an industry where you gotta want to be here because if you don’t, it shows. Me? I want to be here.”
An admirer of such food service and hospitality industry biggies as the Cheesecake Factory and Disney, Tony Capasso is a supporter of their astringent service training model and is quick to admit that this (his) industry needs to do better on training.
“Nowadays, with so many restaurants opening left and right, there just aren’t enough strong people to staff them. The result is a race to hire, but a lack of time to train them. And while the status quo may have been good enough in one restaurant, it’s a shame to think that it’s good enough in someone else’s. We’ve got to do better as owners and managers and put the time and money into training. It will result in staff longevity and customer retention.”
For Tony, the day-to-day operations still excite and challenge him. He continues to carve out a staff he can cast in his show. His approach is that of teamwork, a choreographed dance between the hostess, his managers, the waitstaff, the kitchen, his bartenders, and the runners. A fluid motion around a table of guests that the ringleader can oversee while being engaging and entertaining at the same time. Mishaps are handled discretely, perhaps with a wink and a nod, often with a cocktail or dessert, and always with sincerity.
A fan of the wow factor, Tony’s delivers on all fronts. The dining room is elegant, yet lively. The steaks are big and the wine is robust. There’s nothing ordinary about the restaurant, the food, or the experience. And it’s just the beginning.
“I have big plans for Tony’s. The property is stunning and we are going to take advantage of its many attributes, starting with the outdoor patio and bar this spring. It’s go big or go home here,” beams Tony, excited about the hotel’s potential, “The J House is the former location of the Howard Johnson’s. Can you believe it? I’m right back where I started.”
To visit Tony’s at The J House and Tony Capasso, visit their website.