Food | Food Issue 2017

Italian Done Right

A conversation with Ignacio Bautista, owner of Gio’s in Bridgeport

Bridget Gamble

Ignacio Bautista is the owner of Gio’s, a casual Italian café and deli in Bridgeport known for their Sicilian dishes. Gio’s opened in 2001 after Ignacio and his now-retired business partner, Giovanni Liuzzo, alongside chef Victor Quezada, decided to take their combined four decades of Italian restaurant experience and open one of their own. Since opening, the restaurant has grown from four to sixteen tables and become a favorite for neighborhood locals and suburbanites alike.

A family vibe is central to the Gio’s experience. As I sat down with Ignacio at a red-checkered table next to a freezer with pre-packed cups of gelato, a woman wearing a faux fur coat and red lipstick tapped him on the shoulder to say another customer had paid her tab. “What’d I tell you?” she said to him. “Better than family.”

My partner, Gio, and I started, like everyone else, from the bottom. We worked in restaurants for the last twenty-eight years. We saw the opportunity to open up something very small like this and gave it a try.

Prior to opening Gio’s in 2001, we worked these big places where it’s like 150 employees serving 1,000 meals a night. We were kind of tired of that. We wanted to open something simple, nothing fancy. Now we have fifteen to twenty people, half full-time and half part-time. We’ve been lucky because these servers have been here for years. We don’t have a lot of turnover. Our chef, Victor Quezada, has been with us since day one.

We want to make it very informal. We’re BYOB. We get a construction guy or a city worker and we make them comfortable and give them the same quality of food that we were serving at those big places. You want to go to a fancy place? Downtown there are thousands. But if you want to go to a nice place where you get nice food, you can enjoy it and feel comfortable, there are not many places. That was our idea—just to kind of relax and make some business.

Of course, we’re not making the kind of profit that upscale restaurants make. But to make the food as good, or even better than them, that was the idea. It doesn’t matter how fancy it is or how great the service is—if people don’t like the food they’re not going to come back.

Food is number one, service is number two, and the third would be flexibility. We have people who prefer the pasta, or potatoes, or risotto with their chicken Milanese. Maybe they don’t feel like eating potatoes today. Maybe they’re on a diet and they want broccoli. If you don’t make the food the way people like it, they can go somewhere else.

This place used to be a small grocery store that had one or two tables with shelves in the middle. So we took over. We expanded the kitchen. We wanted to mix up the groceries—sell fresh pasta, homemade sausage, made our homemade arancini and tiramisu—a few things that some places don’t make. We started with four tables and then we jumped to six. We built it up over three years, adding more and more and more. Our main goal was to make it more like a restaurant because that was our purpose. We kept the groceries because people love them.

The challenge was that we were coming into an Italian neighborhood where most of these people are old-timers, born in Italy. They’re not second generation or third generation, they’re first generation. We’re coming into their neighborhood and making their food. You know there is going to be a lot of criticism because we’re not Italian. My partner was Italian, so we got a lot of help from him, but he wasn’t in the kitchen.

We had to learn and listen to the people and take their advice. I remember one customer, like the second day we opened, he told us that our beef sandwich was the worst, the most terrible he’d ever had. But we had to learn from that. If he said that, it means we’re not doing it right. You have to take the challenge and improve the sandwich. If you can’t, then you’re in the wrong business.

There are places that have been around for fifty years. I think we can do that too, but we have to work every day and improve. Every year there are new things, new places, new restaurants, and more competition. We are using very traditional dishes and new places open and try different pastas like gluten-free, organic pastas. At one point we were saying that’s garbage, that’s weird, that’s ridiculous, but now we just adapt to the change. We are trying to add to our menu because people want more choices now.

But the clientele we have now is great. It’s a unique thing. On Fridays, you will see every single table is from the neighborhood. At least ten out of the sixteen tables know each other and know who’s who. If their dinner takes one hour, it takes two hours before they leave and say hi to everyone. On Saturday, we don’t see just the neighborhood people. You will see people from the suburbs. I’m amazed people will drive over an hour, even two hours, just to have dinner here when they can go to tons of restaurants in the suburbs or the fanciest place downtown. I’m so thankful. The more crowded you see it, the more fun it is.

Gio’s Cafe and Deli, 2724 S. Lowe Ave. Monday-Thursday, 10am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 10am-9:30pm. (312) 225-6368. gioscafe.com

Correction 5/3/2017:

A previous version of this story misstated the name of the reporter. This interview was told to Bridget Gamble, not Bridget Newsham.

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Thoughts on “Italian Done Right”

  1. This article is wonderful but unless you visit Gios you won’t really realize the truth if it ~ the owners are unbelievable people and a great pleasure to know them and become a part of this family ~ I had the pleasure of meeting Nacho before I tasted the food. I cannot describe the
    Feeling, the food, and being a part of the Gios family ~ we have been lovingly accepted into this family as we have adopted them!!! If you haven’t been there yet just stop in~ you’ll never be treated better nor taste anything better!!!

  2. I’ve been to Gio’s in 2003. It was delicious food. I had breaded Grouper, 1st time, and it was out of this world. Everything there was delicious. Jim took me there. Thanks

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