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Sunday December 21, 2008

King of Italian cuisine

The man behind the successful Modesto’s restaurants in Malaysia talks about his recipe for success.

DID you know that Modesto’s was the first Italian restaurant to introduce the thin-crust pizza in Kuala Lumpur? So says Modesto Marini, the 39-year old restaurateur extraordinaire behind the immensely popular local restaurant chain.

Marini’s success story started with a chance meeting with Malaysia’s “king of dance clubs”, Bob Wong, in the mid 1990s.

“I worked hard and played hard in those days,” he recalls. “I often went clubbing and I was introduced to Bob at one of the clubs he owned. We talked about opening a restaurant together and that’s how Modesto’s came about.”

The interior of Modesto’s newest outlet in Kuala Lumpur. – Photos courtesy of Modesto’s

Today, their company, the Heritage Group of Restaurants & Clubs, of which Marini is managing director, oversees all eight Modesto’s outlets in the Klang Valley, including the newest in Kuala Lumpur’s Capital Square, and one in Johor Baru.

All pretty impressive for a man who decided he wanted to become a chef at 17. After completing his professional culinary training, he spent two years in London working at Cecconi’s – a top Italian restaurant favoured by celebrities – and then another three working in Singapore. Marini decided to venture across the border in 1994 and came to Kuala Lumpur, fell in love with the city and stayed!

“I love the year-long hot weather here,” says Marini, who hails from Lake Garda, a town which is an hour and a half drive away from Milan. “I find the people, culture and lifestyle so exotic and fascinating that I decided to stay put.”

Marini’s first Modesto’s was housed in an old bungalow in Lorong Perak, Kuala Lumpur, and opened its doors in 1995. It was the first restaurant in the city to incorporate a bar, dance club and entertainment hot spot on its premises and, needless to say, its unique all-in-one concept took the city by storm.

Just over a decade later, Marini not only has a string of restaurants in the Klang Valley, but the Heritage Group also runs two clubs and two bars in Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru. By the first quarter of 2009, Modesto’s will also have spread its wings to Kota Kinabalu and Marini doesn’t discount opening more outlets in foreign shores.

Modesto Marini’s chain of successful Italian restaurants in the country have become synonymous with good food and a great party atmosphere. – DARRAN TAN / The Star

So what is the secret of his success?

“Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe it has something to do with my personal philosophy of wanting to keep things simple. That’s what Italian food is about anyway – simplicity. The cuisine is not fanciful or complicated. What’s more important is the ingredients must be fresh.”

Although his days of slaving away in the kitchen are over, the intrepid entrepreneur remains firmly in control of what goes into the menu and oversees the wine list at all Modesto’s restaurants.

He says: “Modesto’s offers a good mix of classic specialities from all over Italy. Most of them are light, summery dishes such as beef carpaccio (paper-thin beef slices with extra virgin olive oil and parmesan) and thin-crust pizzas to suit the weather here. You’ll never tire from eating these every day due to the simple, delicious taste.

“Customers are becoming increasingly health-conscious but our Italian dishes remain as popular as ever because we use a lot of tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar which are known for their healthful attributes in our cooking.

However, as variety always adds spice, Marini makes sure that the menu always includes something new.

“Changes to the a la carte menu are made around every quarter. However, new and one-off special dishes are introduced regularly.”

To offer even more variety, the latest Modesto’s outlet at Capital Square has incorporated a Japanese sushi and sashimi bar. Marini seems perfectly at ease with this somewhat unconventional addition to his Italian eatery.

“We just want to offer our customers better variety. If they want something apart from the usual Italian fare, we’ll try our best to oblige. I guess this is what makes Modesto’s unique – each of our outlets has something different that caters to the clientele in that particular locality.

Simple Italian cuisine served in a warm ambiance has been Modesto’s winning formula.

“For instance, our Sri Hartamas outlet (in a trendy housing subburb in Kuala Lumpur) has a small Chinese section that cooks up spring rolls and chicken wings – that’s what our customers want so we’re happy to serve them.”

When asked if he has had any bad experiences with fussy or obnoxious customers, Marini dismisses the question and declares that the customer is always right.

“In this business, you have to take everything in stride,” he says philosophically. “Whenever we encounter any problems, we deal with it and move on. It’s not for me to say whether Malaysians are better or worse than customers elsewhere. As long as we keep our customers happy, I believe they’ll keep coming back.”

Like any true-blue Italian, Marini is immensely proud of the fact that the Ferrari F1 team always makes Modesto’s its “home away from home’’ when ever the Malaysian Grand Prix is in town. “We hosted the first Ferrari party in 2000. Since then, we’ve also played host to all the Formula 1 and MotoGP stars like Jarno Trulli, Valentino Rossi and Loris Capirossi every time they race here. Trulli even launched his signature range of Italian wines at Modesto’s two years ago.”

Since he spends six days a week on the job, Marini admits that he hardly celebrates Christmas, New Year or any of the special occasions since these are the busiest periods for him and his team.

In fact, Marini is a man of simple tastes who confesses that almost all his meals are eaten at his restaurants: “My favourite dish is beef carpaccio and our signature thin-crust pizza. But I also love eating nasi lemak. It’s my favourite after finishing work at 2 am!”

“After all these years, I’m used to it. I’m thankful Modesto’s has lasted so long. This alone is a celebration in itself,” he says.