Splendido changes ownership but stays in the “family”

Splendido changes ownership but stays in the “family”

The new guard: Carlo Cattalo, left, and Victor Barry (Photo by Davida Aronovitch)

Splendido is changing hands. The star-powered duo that revived the powerhouse Harbord Street restaurant—proprietor Yannick Bigourdan and chef David Lee—announced this week that they will be handing the shop to general manager Carlo Cattalo and chef de cuisine Victor Barry. According to those involved, the transfer has been in the works for some time. Loyalists may rest easy, though: major evolution is envisioned for this summer, but Cattalo promises that “the spirit of Splendido has been passed on. It’s all about refreshing, not recreating.”

Local foodies are speculating that the change is recession related, but Cattalo claims that bad times have nothing to do with it. The shift in partnership was set in motion by the rise of talented chef Victor Barry and accelerated by the success of Nota Bene—Splendido’s more casual sibling on Queen Street West—which often kept Bigourdan and Lee off-site.

It’s not the first time that the business has been passed down this way. When Lee bought the house in 1991, he’d been part of then-owner Franco Prevedello’s circle at Centro. “Splendido is a place to grow up,” says Cattalo. “And Victor is a chef of 27. He’s reaching his prime.” Cattalo has also come of age since he started as manager and sommelier in 2001: “Seven years ago, I wasn’t ready to own a restaurant, but I am now. We’re the next generation.”

Bigourdan characterized the transaction as “a family deal, almost,” and with any familial legacy comes the challenge of asserting the next generation’s identity. Barry is conscious of the difficulty he faces in making his mark on the menu, despite his education (both he and Lee trained in England and are French influenced) and three years in the kitchen under Lee. Still, the young chef is confident that he’s already asserting his own style. “The progression of food here for the past year has had a lot to do with me,” he says. It’s no surprise that his menu will be seasonal, locally sourced and family farmed. “I shake hands with the farmers. I know them,” he says. He even gives growers seeds for ingredients uncommon in the area, like European espelette peppers. “The food will have my own fingerprint on it,” he says. We hope that’s just a metaphor.

As for ambience, the somewhat sober—some even say sombre—atmosphere of Splendido will also get a youthful refresh. The calm, special-occasion tenor will give way to a more relaxed feel. “We want to make it a bit more upbeat,” explains Cattalo, who hopes to keep his devoted clientele while appealing to a broader range of diners by emphasizing value. No takeover—no matter how amicable—would be complete without a facelift to reflect the new vision. Talks are still in progress, but the team is eyeing Ralph Giannone to renovate the space during a three-week period in early July. The designer’s emphasis on location is a good match for Cattalo’s aim of making the decor reflect the food and its chef-artist.

This revival could be the 20-year-old Splendido’s third coming. But Cattalo will be doing what he always does, what Bigourdan has been encouraging him to do since day one: “Carlo, he said, run this restaurant as if it’s your own.”