People 3 minutes 18 January 2019

Industry Insider: Authenticity Is The Secret To Longevity For Sabatini Ristorante Italiano

For 91-year-old Silvestro Sabatini, founder of the famed Italian home-style restaurant in Rome, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last year, success was built on keeping it real.

Hong Kong Industry Insider Italian cuisine

I was born the middle child in a family of three sons in Onano, a small town located 100km north-west of Rome. When I was 12 years old, I left our quiet town with my brothers and headed to the big city of Rome, lured by its bright lights and job opportunities.

Working wasn’t easy back then. It was right in the middle of World War II and we were lucky to find jobs. My brothers found jobs at different restaurants in the city and I too started working at a very small restaurant, handling everything from washing the dishes, cleaning, preparing for food and serving guests.
The Sabatini brothers, Silvestro, Francesco and Salvatore.
The Sabatini brothers, Silvestro, Francesco and Salvatore.
It was during this period that the dream of opening a restaurant was sparked in us. As we worked, we got hands-on experience and all-rounded knowledge in running a restaurant. We lived together to save money. The three of us worked extremely hard for many years. It was a difficult yet happy period for us; we shared our lives with each other and talked about the difficulties or good things we encountered at work.

During these years, I developed an interest in singing, especially Italian oldies and operas, to relax myself after a long day of work. Over the years, we grew more and more determined and confident about opening our own restaurant.

In 1958, this dream finally came true. Sabatini Ristorante Italiano was opened at the beautiful Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome. The restaurant was first started as a small family business serving authentic home-style Italian cuisine.
Sabatini in Rome opened in 1958.
Sabatini in Rome opened in 1958.

We are extremely excited about our one shared goal: giving our best to customers in every aspect. Food quality was always the key. For us, fresh seafood is the most important ingredient. Every day, I woke up early in the morning and visited Civitavecchia Market to procure the freshest catch for our patrons.

I remember one day, we bought some really nice scampi, clams and mussels from the market and simply cooked it with linguine and tomato sauce. Our guests loved it and more and more people came back for it. This was how our signature dish of Linguine Alla Sabatini was born. Since then, it has become one of the most famous dishes from the restaurant. It was the same for spaghetti with fresh clams, garlic and parsley. Not many people know this, but Sabatini Ristorante Italiano was actually one of the very first restaurants in Italy to serve pasta with clams when we created our Spaghetti Alle Vongole Veraci.

Linguine Alla Sabatini (Pic: Sabatini Hong Kong at The Royal Garden)
Linguine Alla Sabatini (Pic: Sabatini Hong Kong at The Royal Garden)

Despite being the owners of the restaurant, we insisted on handling all matters personally from back to front of the house, including sourcing ingredients, kitchen work and floor work. We worked very long hours every day, seven days a week without holidays. After several years of serving authentic Italian food that locals truly enjoyed, our hard work paid off and business started to boom. Apart from local guests, more and more tourists started visiting the restaurant, even the occasional Hollywood star. The most unforgettable ones include Italian star Alberto Sordi, Sean Connery and Tom Cruise who ordered the Linguine Alla Sabatini. Two months later, Tom Cruise contacted us and invited my brothers and I to visit him at his home in Los Angeles together with our chefs.

Our next big milestone was in 1992 when we opened our first and only overseas outpost in Hong Kong. I remember, that year we had a customer who was travelling in Rome. He told us that he had tried a few other restaurants nearby previously before he came upon ours and sampled some dishes. He fell in love with the atmosphere, the ambience of the restaurant and our food and shared his hope of bringing Sabatini to Hong Kong. Without much hesitation, we soon agreed to the plan. That man was the late Hong Kong real estate tycoon Walter Kwok. The reason we agreed was simple. It was because we felt his enthusiasm and passion, and we knew he truly loved our food.

The interiors of Sabatini Ristorante Italiano in Hong Kong. (Pic: Sabatini Hong Kong at The Royal Garden)
The interiors of Sabatini Ristorante Italiano in Hong Kong. (Pic: Sabatini Hong Kong at The Royal Garden)
We had a great relationship with Kwok as we shared the same vision: to bring the true Sabatini experience to Hong Kong. We wanted customers who stepped inside Sabatini Hong Kong to feel like they were completely transported to Rome, in terms of interior decor and food. So, my brothers and I chose every piece of tile, every vase, plate and candle holder ourselves. We had everything imported straight from Italy to create an utterly authentic ambience true to the experience of the Rome restaurant. Sabatini Hong Kong was also one of pioneering restaurants in the city to offer an extensive Italian wine, cheese and salumi selection curated by us and imported from Rome.

In the years since, I have travelled frequently to Hong Kong to greet our patrons. I love this vibrant city and enjoy the warm interactions with our Hong Kong guests. Although Sabatini in Hong Kong is a little more formal, the atmosphere is warm and delightful, especially with the acoustic band livening up the atmosphere. Singing still remains as a hobby of mine until now, I enjoy performing to our guests at the restaurant and I am glad that they like my singing.
Silvestro Sabatini, singing the opera for restaurant patrons.
Silvestro Sabatini, singing the opera for restaurant patrons.
Sabatini Ristorante Italiano Hong Kong has been the toast of the town for 27 years now and has become one of the most beloved Italian restaurants frequented by many socialites and celebrities.

The Sabatini brothers have come a long way from working in small restaurants in Rome to establishing these two celebrated restaurants in Italy and Hong Kong. If you ask me what the key to success is, it’s simply this: al chiodo. Work hard every day from dawn to dusk, be authentic — just like how Sabatini is exactly the same as it was when it opened 61 years ago — and success will follow.

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