Their resume reads like a Who’s Who among New York City’s gastronomic elite: Tribeca Grill, The River Café, the Regency Hotel, Aureole. And this summer, a group of five business partners and executive chefs will add the fabled eatery at the Clearview Golf Course to their list of culinary endeavors.
Friendship Restaurant Group, comprised of three brothers – Giorgio, John and Paul Kolaj – and two non-related industry insiders, Andrew Pappas and Don Pintabona, has for a few weeks held the keys to the restaurant and banquet hall formerly known as Caffé on the Green.
But the group has a lot to do – including over $1 million in renovations – before they open their restaurant’s doors.
Overlooking the shiny expanse of Little Bay and the Throgs Neck Bridge, the city-owned establishment has been a dining institution in Bayside for decades. The facility’s previous operator, Merissa Restaurant Corporation, had to end its 18-year run after the city terminated their franchise.
Friendship Restaurant Group was awarded a 15-year-lease early this year to operate in the mansion that was once home to silent film star Rudolph Valentino, and later, to New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
The group aims to open their restaurant in about four months. Fittingly enough, they will call it Valentino’s on the Green.
“It will not be a Chinese restaurant,” said Giorgio, laughing as he addressed rumors that have been dancing around Queens and the New York dining scene. The establishment will remain Italian, he assured.
Giorgio, the group’s head of business development, sympathizes with long-time Caffé on the Green patrons who may be on edge over the future of their restaurant.
“I agree with them – I would feel the same way,” he said, adding, “We’re going to work very hard to gain their trust.”
Fortunately, the owners and members of the group are used to hard work. With collective restaurant and hospitality experience across the globe, they cite quality as their top concern. In fact, through another restaurant group, the Kolaj brothers run 128 Famous Famiglia pizzerias worldwide and have received 12 awards from Airport Revenue News. No other pizza chain has won even once, they said.
But the five owner-members behind the group bristle at the suggestion that they will create anything less than a fine-dining experience, let alone something remotely close to a pizzeria in such an exalted location.
“It’s going to be classic Italian cuisine elevated to meet today’s tastes,” explained Pappas, an executive chef and the property’s director of operations. Entrées, including some Caffé on the Green staples, like Vitello Rudolfo Valentino and an array of pasta dishes, will grace the restaurant’s menu at prices ranging from the high teens to the mid-20s, the owners said.
However, before this summer’s diners taste the food, they will enter a revamped facility with new ceilings, windows and light fixtures and intimate banquettes. Slanted floors will have become level; the bathrooms and bridal suite expanded; bar tops refinished; kitchens renovated.
Meanwhile, the footprint of the facility will remain the same, with the exception of an external elevator that will bring the establishment up to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards.
“It’s going to take some work but it’s going to be great,” said Paul Kolaj, the group’s CEO. He added that updates are necessary despite the “great job” Merissa did in running the facility for so long.
While the group has secured an experienced general manager from the acclaimed Fireman Hospitality Group and is presently searching for a head chef, the bulk of hiring is still a couple months away. But the owners recognize the importance and benefits of bringing back familiar faces and say they will rehire much of Caffé on the Green’s staff.
Additionally, the group has consulted former employees regarding “what worked and what didn’t,” said Pintabona, an executive chef and the group’s consulting partner. The 60-40 percent ratio between the restaurant and catering business worked, apparently, and the group will strive to achieve the same balance.
Just as important, they say, is evoking the professionalism and romance embodied by their restaurant’s namesake. The owners seemed to draw inspiration from Valentino, whose portrait looked down on them from above a crackling fireplace.
“This is an iconic location,” Giorgio noted. “My goodness, it deserves the best quality.”