Arriving at his Highland Park Village eatery Bistro 31 to sit for a portrait for this story, restaurateur Alberto Lombardi greeted me jovially with an air-kiss on each cheek and promptly asked if I’d care for an espresso. This is the type of warm, European–style hospitality Lombardi is famous for — and it is genuine, carrying over into every aspect of his life. Lombardi, who began his career as a busboy aboard a Norwegian cruise ship, has worked tirelessly to achieve his epicurean dreams.
All came to fruition in 1977, when his first restaurant, aptly named Lombardi’s, opened in Dallas. Today, under his namesake Lombardi Family Concepts umbrella, the charismatic Italian operates nine restaurants in Texas, one in Las Vegas and one in Akumal, Mexico; he has more openings slated for Houston, Laguna Beach, Austin, Fort Worth and Plano through 2017. Mesmerized by Lombardi’s travel tales — the 67-year-old crisscrosses the globe in pursuit of the perfect recipes and concepts — we find it all started at sea.
In the beginning.
I grew up in Forli, Italy, and attended the Hotel Palace school in Rimini. When I was 17, I left for Berlin for six months. After that, I decided I needed to learn French, and left for Brussels, working in different French restaurants. With friends, I traveled to Oslo, where I applied to work for a cruise ship on the Norwegian America line called the Sagafjord.
It was a different time. Tourism was [for] the elite. The boat was 27,000 tons, with 270 passengers and 320 crew members from 27 nationalities. When you start, you’re a busboy, then you jump to waiter and then maître d’. I spent almost three years going around the world, to Africa, India, China, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.
The road to Dallas.
In 1973, I went to work for one of the top restaurants in Florida, Le Cordon Bleu. A couple opened the restaurant in October and closed it in April, so I decided to go to San Francisco. I worked in one of the most famous French restaurants there, called La Bourgogne. Then I worked for the Fairmont Hotel — that’s why I came to Dallas.
I was assistant manager of the Pyramid Room, and then general manager of the Venetian Room, where we had all the best shows in Dallas: Tony Bennett, The Lettermen, and The Pointer Sisters. After two years, I got married, had family, had kids, and I said, My god, now I have to stay!
Lombardi’s, the original.
Lombardi’s opened on January 24, 1977. It was a little scary. When you first open a restaurant, you’re not sure about anything: You’re short on money; you need to figure out how to take it day by day. But I made the restaurant personal — something Dallas didn’t have at the time. I got to know everyone. I knew where they wanted to sit, what kind of waiter they wanted, what kind of drink. We created a very loyal clientele. I have a lot of passion in what I do. I do it because I like the restaurant business — the people business.
We just opened a beautiful little Taverna in Akumal, an all open-concept with palapas. We do fresh pasta — capellini, ravioli, fettuccine, lasagna — and a lot of seafood. The locals love it. We have a house in Akumal and go all the time. [Dallas Design District owner] Bill Hutchinson came to visit me and bought a house on the same street.
We started construction last month in the River Oaks District, where Toulouse and Taverna will open in January . It is the best location in Houston. In River Oaks District, you have offices and apartments — so people can walk pretty much everywhere. Toulouse is going to look like a Parisian bistro or brasserie, and Taverna will be bigger than the one in Dallas.
My philosophy is that when you treat people who work for you in a nice way, and like part of the family, they will stay with you forever. I am surrounded by people I trust, who have become my friends. I have three girls [Anna, 38; Laura, 36; Sarah, 32]. Right now, only one is involved in the business, because the others had too many kids! Then I have my young one, Luca, who is 11, and seven grandkids. That’s why I do so many restaurants — I have to feed everybody!
I’ll have what he’s having.
I grew up in Italy, but love French food, sushi and sashimi. When I go to Taverna for lunch, I always have a nice plate of pasta. I love the cappelletti. At Toulouse, I have my usual mussels marinière or a nice filet au poivre. I love to go upstairs and eat sashimi at Bistro 31. I grew up with wine, so I always have a glass with lunch — Chardonnay or a nice rosé.
I love to exercise. I play tennis. I used to play soccer for the men’s team in Plano. I get up Sunday mornings to watch the English league.
I’ve liked clothes since I was a little kid. I go to Neiman’s and Stanley Korshak, but many times I do my shopping when I am in Bologna, Italy. I always take two or three days there before I leave to get some fantastic clothes.
My wife, Vivian, and I have been married for 14 years and together for many more. We love to travel. We go to Italy every year for two or three weeks, and we spend time in Mexico. I still have many friends in San Francisco whom I visit. I think California is the most beautiful state. We are opening a Taverna in Laguna Beach in December. From our patio, you can look at the beach.
Sometimes I meet people who say, “I remember when your father opened the first restaurant.” I have to tell them it was not my father — it was me! People don’t realize because time goes by so fast.
I am very happy when customers say, “I want to thank you because I had my graduation” or “I proposed to my wife” at one of the restaurants. We have that connection.