By Edie Jarolim –
Daniel Scordato is on top of the world these days – literally as well as figuratively.
When the chef-owner of Vivace moved his popular restaurant from St. Philip’s Plaza to the foothills aerie long occupied by Anthony’s in the Catalinas in March 2014, he acquired breathtaking vistas of Tucson spread out in the valley below.
He also improved business by about 30 percent.
For longtime Tucson residents, the name Scordato is synonymous with high-quality Italian food. The close-knit family moved in 1963 to Arizona from New Jersey, where they had a restaurant, because 5-year-old Daniel had asthma. In 1972, they opened Scordato’s on the west side, making it the first formal Italian restaurant in town, with a serious wine list and tuxedoed servers. Daniel was involved in the day-to-day operations from age 14.
This might explain why, when Scordato struck out on his own at age 27, he was confident enough to put his own name on the venture and to attract investing partners. Daniel’s, which served innovative Mediterranean fare, opened in Plaza Palomino in 1986. Anticipating and riding the 1990s wave of creative new eateries in Tucson, the restaurant continued for several years past Scordato’s involvement with it. It also served as a learning experience for him.
Among other things, Scordato realized that his financial priorities for Daniel’s were skewed. “I put more money into the kitchen than into the dining room, which was silly,” Scordato said. “People are very visual. They don’t think about what’s in the kitchen” – as long as what comes out of it is good, of course.
So when Scordato opened the first incarnation of Vivace in the Crossroads Festival shopping center in 1992, it was airy, stylish and inviting. It was here that he began devising his signature dishes. Although Scordato’s paternal grandparents were from Sicily, Vivace’s food never hewed to one regional style – or even, in many cases, to strict Italian traditions. Scordato calls the menu Italian-inspired, geared toward American preferences.
For example, he said, “Italians would never eat pasta as a main course,” but Vivace offers six entree-size pasta dishes, along with nine meat entrees and a fresh fish of the day. The menu has evolved over the years, but you can depend on finding such items as the crab-stuffed chicken breast and penne with sausage.
When Scordato relocated Vivace to St. Philip’s Plaza in 2001, the dining room became a bit more formal, with marbled walls, Italianate columns, white tablecloths and a romantic patio strung with tiny lights. Although as friendly and accommodating as before to patrons wearing all kinds of attire, the restaurant now catered to special occasion diners, too.
To fill the casual niche, Scordato debuted Intermezzo, featuring lighter, less expensive Italian fare, in Williams Centre in 2003. He sold the cafe a year later to concentrate on Vivace – the very hands-on restaurateur found it hard to divide his time between dining rooms on different sides of town – but never lost his interest in having a more informal Italian spot. This idea came to fruition again in 2009 with Vivace Pizzeria – now Scordato’s Pizzeria – which is in St. Philip’s Plaza
According to Scordato, the trend of high-end restaurants opening casual offshoots started some 15 years ago and took off in the last decade. He briefly considered opening a burger spot, but realized that staying with the same general dining concept made more sense. That way, he figured, both restaurants could share the same high-quality ingredients.
Not that Scordato generally cares about trends.
“My goal is to please my customers as much as I can,” he said, “and that means consistency in both food and service.”
It also means appealing to more than just one age group. “I want them all, millennials, baby boomers, everyone. I’m not going to go with the latest fad just to have a place that’s packed for two months and then totally dead because people move on to the next new thing.” He clarified, “Some new things are fine, like using fresh herbs or finding a great new source of fresh fish. But I’m not going to go for bacon ice cream.”
The other thing that’s crucial for Scordato is providing good value. He advised other restaurateurs, “Don’t get greedy. Don’t try to take your margins so low and charge so much that you alienate your customers. I don’t stint on ingredients, and I don’t raise prices and run specials on a few items. I’d rather have a product that’s a good value every day of the week. That’s what the customer wants.”
So Scordato kept his menu, including the prices, the same at the new place. He also used the same interior decorator he used at St. Philip’s Plaza, Shannon Patterson, which means the style is essentially the same. With 9,000 square feet of space and endless city and mountain vistas from floor-to-ceiling windows, however, the Italian villa effect is more dramatic.
Although it looks much larger, the dining room seats only 25 more people than it did before – the tables are just farther from each other than they previously were, Scordato said. As a result of the servers having greater distances to cover, as well as the addition of a banquet room, he has had to take on additional staff.
Given his greater overhead, including a higher rent, how did Scordato increase his profits by 30 percent? He attributes his success, in part, to the banquet room, but figures the rest is the result of keeping loyal customers from the former location, which is only about five minutes down the hill, and acquiring new ones in this very popular dining and shopping nexus on the corners of Skyline Drive and Campbell Avenue, which includes La Encantada shopping center.
He is considering transforming Anthony’s vast former wine cellar to a room offering bottle service – similar to the type that’s offered in Las Vegas, only with fairly priced wine, not $500 bottles of vodka. He doesn’t, however, have any plans to invest much more money in the kitchen, having learned what his priorities are some three decades ago.
Still, Scordato said, referring a little wistfully to the kitchen at Daniel’s, “It was great, state-of-the-art equipment. I wish I still had it.”