Geno Auriemma expounds on his background, the restaurant business, his love of food and passion for wine, and of course, basketball.
[Excerpted and edited]
[Frank Cohen]: As a restaurant critic of 26 years and a UConn follower even longer, I’m a big fan of yours on both counts. I also love your wit and candor.
[Geno Auriema]: Thank you!
[FC]: You were born in southern Italy?
[GA]: Yes, near Naples, about an hour and a half away in the mountains of Campania in the small village of Montella.
[FC]: There’s a scenic biopark there I’ve seen pictures of with a manmade waterfall with huge stone cubes?
[GA]: Yes, there is!
[FC]: How old were you when you moved to the United States?
[GA]: We left Italy in November of 1961. The crossing took about 13 days. We got to America on November 21 or 22, and I turned eight in March of 1962. We lived in Norristown, in the Philadelphia suburbs. My father worked in a factory, then my mother also got a job working in a factory.
[FC]: I liked Geno’s Grille when I reviewed it for Hartford Magazine in 2014. Will it reopen?
[GA]: It’s permanently closed. The times, you know. We’re putting all our efforts and time and energy into Café Aura. We feel like that’s a special place. The community has been very supportive of it, not just Manchester but the entire Hartford area. So we’re devoting all of our time to that.
[FC]: It’s beautiful! Will the casino restaurants be coming back at some point?
[GA]: No, the casino itself is struggling a bit, as you can see, and that was happening long before the pandemic came along. They won’t be coming back, either.
[FC]: I can’t believe what you did with the building. Are you able to tell me how much you put into the renovations?
[GA]: [Laughs.] You know how this goes. It seems to be ongoing, whenever you do something like this. You take an old building—1933—and you’ve got to modernize it to fit today’s safety requirements. It was well over three-quarters of a million dollars.
[FC]: How have you been coping with operating a restaurant in these difficult times?
[GA]: We’re following the protocols of 50% capacity. We’ve noticed people are really appreciating the quiet and intimacy of having dinner now. We’ve added a lot of plants inside—they help the vibe.
[FC]: Restaurants that put real effort into their wine lists offer diners an added dimension. Cavey’s had a fine wine list, and it’s evident you are continuing that tradition in this building.
[GA]: It’s funny you bring up wine lists because that’s one of my passions. Each and every week, I love finding wines, talking about good wine. We just went into a partnership, an agreement, with John Caldwell winery out of Napa. He makes some of the best Cabernet and Cabernet blends in the world, and he’s got an unbelievable story. He’s just the most incredible guy and he’s going to make a wine for Café Aura exclusively.
[FC]: I find it ironic that Connecticut residents seem to prefer the foods of southern Italy but the wines of northern Italy. They really seem to be missing the boat when it comes to southern Italian wines.
[GA]: Obviously, I’m a huge proponent of Italian wines in general. I’ve always been anxious to promote southern Italian wines in this country because I think they’re underrepresented and offer great value. There are great tasting wines, really neat varietals that you don’t find. They’re not the Napa wines, not the Tuscan wines. Southern Italian wines have a distinct flavor to them and interesting character about them. The volcanic soil down there just produces some incredible wine. Friends of mine, in Irpinia in the mountains, had a blind tasting and the southern Italian wines scored just as high as any of the Tuscan or Piedmont wines. But no one knows about them. They’re not marketed well over here. Even when you can buy them, they don’t get the same recognition. I’ve always thought, what a great thing for me to do as someone who was born there—to help raise the profile of southern Italian wines in America.
[FC]: You have a terrific regular wine list, and then your Coach’s List obviously offers greater depth.
[GA]: I just had this conversation with one of our managers at Café Aura. I said, you know I really want to build up our wine list and add some older vintages of some of our really good wines. We have some really great Brunellos. I would like to get some older vintages of Barolo. I love French wine and I have a ton of Bordeaux in my cellar, but that’s not going to sell in our restaurant because that’s not who we are. I want us to be more of an Italian and California Cab kind of restaurant.
[FC]: I love that you’re so motivated to source southern Italian wines! Because the cost of land in regions like Campania and Calabria is lower, the quality-price ratio of the wines can be tremendous.
[GA]: One hundred percent! Even the white wines from southern Italy. People don’t realize the amazing history southern Italian wines have. Americans aren’t well versed in the fact that the Romans could have gone anywhere to drink wine and they always went to Campania to have the best wine. I would love to be more involved in bringing attention to those wines. I want Café Aura to be the kind of place you can go and get some of the best Italian wines at a great price.
[FC]: Oh, I have to ask—did you feel like Diana Taurasi was just meant to happen given your background and the great wines from Taurasi?
[GA]: Well, I’ll tell you a quick story how that came about. So, being as committed to the wines as I was, and I’m really recruiting her, I said, “Hey, your father was born in Italy, correct?” And she said, “Yes, and then he moved to Argentina, and then to California.” And I said, “Can you do me a favor? Do you know if he was born in Taurasi or in southern Italy or what part of Italy?” So she says, “I’ll find out!” And it turns out he was from the town of Taurasi. Because as you may know, back in the day if you came over to this country and you didn’t have proper documentation, then whatever town you were from became your last name. So when I went to Diana’s house to recruit her, that’s what we talked about—Taurasi wine and their heritage. I told them Taurasi is about 40 minutes from where I was born. So wine is how I got to learn more about them and their family and the connection of them having been born right near. So now I always make sure I have a few bottles of Taurasi in my cellar and that’s why we carry it on our menu at Café Aura. Because, one, I like the wine, it’s emblematic of what is good about southern Italian wines, and two, it’s kind of an ode to an all-time great.
[FC]: Anyway, I hate to stop talking about wine, but I guess we’d better talk about the restaurant. How did it come about that you ended up taking over Cavey’s?
[GA]: Well, because I live only a few miles from Cavey’s, there were so many opportunities for me to go to dinner there. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the food. Steve Cavagnaro obviously was a great chef and a wonderful host, and we got to know each other a little bit. I kept saying to my wife, someday we should look into this place when Steve doesn’t want to do this anymore. From what Steve said, there wasn’t anyone in the family that had any interest in being involved in the restaurant. So when the time came and Steve indicated he was ready to get out, I thought it was a natural for us. It was so close by, and I felt that the area certainly would support something like that, but it just couldn’t stay the way it was. We obviously had to make a lot of changes in order for it to be successful in today’s world of dining.
[FC]: Yes, it really was an old world experience when you ate downstairs at Cavey’s. I love the restaurant now.
[GA]: You know, the other thing, because of the way the pandemic has played out and the protocols of 50% capacity, we’ve noticed that people are really appreciating the quiet and the intimacy of having dinner here. In the beginning I had said I want to create a real vibe, you know, the kind of restaurant you have in New York where you can feel the energy in the place, and that was really great, but now, because of all that has happened, and because we’ve added a lot of plants and dividers, the atmosphere is even better than it was. I don’t see us going all the way back to what we were before. I like the fact that two people can come to the restaurant and have a somewhat intimate experience while having dinner and yet still feel the energy of the bar and whatever else is going on.
[FC]: What I’m noticing, as I take the table tour all around the state, is that on the one hand you want restaurants to thrive, but on the other hand you can enjoy places that were so packed they were almost unpleasant now that they’re providing a quieter and more reserved experience. And I have observed two contrasting approaches taken by restaurants during this pandemic: some are trying to rush people in and rush them back out so they can get the tables turned over, while others seem to take the approach that “we’re a high-end restaurant and we realize that if folks stay longer and spend more it’s okay not to try to turn the table over two or three times in an evening.”
[GA]: Yeah, I agree with that. A lot of people are not going to want to spend two-and-a-half or three hours in a place—that’s not going to happen. That’s one reason I thought the French restaurant downstairs became a difficult venture, because there wasn’t just that level of commitment to having an incredible dining experience anymore; most people are not going to want to do that. The idea is a little more space, take your time, but I also know you’re going to leave in a reasonable time and we’re going to get another couple in here. So maybe you do get a turnover once, but you’re not trying to push people out and get two or three or four table turnings. Conversely, you’re not going to have people sitting there for four hours. I think it’s a delicate balance that I hope we have found.
[FC]: Yes, the hospitality seemed great to me. How did you connect with executive chef Erminio Conte, whom I interviewed a few days ago along with your son-in-law and director of operations Todd Stigliano?
[GA]: Well, you know it’s funny, we were looking for a chef and we began to make some inquiries, and I even said, “Hey, let’s go to Italy and find a young kid.” But it didn’t seem practical, so we started asking around, and we had this company that specialized in Italian restaurants and chefs, so we said, “Alright, let’s bring a couple of people in.” So we did, we had them cook for us, and Erminio’s personality, his worldly experience, the many different types of dining venues he’s been a part of, he seemed the perfect fit for us. And it’s turned out to be as good, if not better, than we thought, because the people who come in, they all comment the same way: “Hey, I met your chef, and he’s so delightful. He came out and he checked on us.” You can sit back there and cook and be a technician, or you can come out all the time and be the life of the party, but to be able to balance things and do both—that’s a real talent!
[FC]: I have to say I was blown away by the swordfish. Your chef obviously has creativity and a willingness to try things. I mean, “white livornese sauce” doesn’t seem to exist anywhere on the Internet except at your restaurant, although I understand what that means, but I told him it was one of the great fish accompaniments I have ever had.
[GA]: Yes, you’re right, the way he’s been able to complement fishes has been really a huge hit with our customers. And they appreciate that they’re going to get something a little bit different here. I’m trying to get him to do some easy things—“How about some staples?” And he’s like, “Well you know, everyone has that.” And I say to him, the reason everyone has that is because it’s good, but Erminio loves to be creative and to experiment—and we’re the beneficiaries of that.
[FC]: I’m trying to remember, do you have a veal Milanese on the menu?
[GA]: Yeah, we did, but we really weren’t selling a lot of it, so I told him, “Chef, I want veal Marsala.” And I love veal Milanese, don’t get me wrong, that’s one of my favorite dishes and I even make it at home, but I said, “Chef, I want a veal Marsala.” “Ah, but…” And I insisted, “I want a veal Marsala.” You know, we went through a couple of different versions of it, and we found one that I really love!
[FC]: I didn’t get to try it, but I’m going to have to come back for it. I love a really good veal Marsala. It can be done badly, but when it’s done well, it sings to you.
[GA]: Yes, it can be done badly, and I’ve seen it done badly, but when it’s done well, oh my God, it’s absolutely spectacular.
[FC]: I was fortunate in 2003 to spend some time with Luigi Veronelli, Italy’s leading food and wine expert and a champion of small producers, a man who repeatedly took on big corporate interests. He died a year later. There’s a cooking school on a small island in Venice now named for him. Did you ever get to meet him?
[GA]: No, but I can’t say enough about the people of Italy. I just feel bad sometimes because it’s such a difficult place if you’re trying to manage that country and you’re trying to manage its people, who are not the easiest people to get to agree on anything. But when Italians put their mind to food or wine or music or culture, nobody in the world does it better. Every time I go over there, I learn something new and I find something more to appreciate.
[FC]: So I saw you brought the Cavey’s sign inside in tribute. I thought that was really classy.
[GA]: Yeah, we also left some doors that were there, some window trimmings, some wood trimmings downstairs. I wanted there to be kind of a nod to the heritage and legacy that Steve created.
[FC]: Sorry if my questions jump all over the map, but the Puglia Rosso you have, is it Primitivo, Negro Amaro, a blend?
[GA]: It’s Primitivo. And that’s the other thing I want to do. I want to go to Italy and I want to source out a few bottles of southern Italian wine so you can come to my restaurant and I can say, “Here’s a taste of my background.”
[FC]: There’s really no end to wine, is there? It’s like food—it’s a near-infinite universe.
[GA]: Oh yeah, And every wine has a story, every wine has a legend to it.
[FC]: Every good wine anyway.
[GA]: [Laughing] Yes, every good wine.
[FC]: I know a producer named Barberani in Umbria that makes a botrytised yet dry white wine called “Luigi e Giovanna” that I think you’d love. It can hold its own with high-end Burgundies.
[GA]: I’ve really fallen in love with very good white wine. I find myself drinking more and more of it. And not just those white wines that you drink in summer because they’re seasonal, but I mean all winter long. Steve and I used to talk about wine all the time. There are lots of great wines, but when you get a great white Burgundy, boy is it just something!
[FC]: The Luigi e Giovanna will get you into that kind of magic and complexity. It’s pretty special.
[GA]: I’ve got to find out about all these wines. I’m a sponge when it comes to these things.
[FC]: As a restaurant critic, I was always troubled by reviewers who acted as if they knew everything. It bothered me so much, because when you believe you know everything, you’ve stopped learning. With your thirst for learning, I bet you would have made a great restaurant critic.
[GA]: [Laughs] Well, you know I’m like that as a basketball coach. I always feel like I know a lot about the game, but there’s still a lot about the game that I want to learn, that I need to learn, that would help me be even better, and to me that’s the whole point, Why would you ever stop learning more about your craft? Never stop! A doctor never stops learning about the craft. A stone mason never stops learning how to cut that piece of stone so it fits perfectly in that fireplace. An archaeologist never stops. A scientist never stops.
[FC]: How have you been managing your athletes in terms of the pandemic? Are they basically in a bubble?
[GA]: Yeah, I mean right now they’re in school, so they’re in what we call a “pod.” There are apartments where they live, and right now they pretty much stay within the apartments where they live, but little by little we’re going to be putting them together so that they interact with each other so we have the entire team working out together. But because we don’t have a plan in terms of when are we playing, when exactly is the first game, what is the schedule, because no one knows any of that, we don’t know exactly how to proceed other than try to do a little bit here, a little bit there.
[FC]: Do you think the Big 10 & Pac 10 conferences have taken the right approach for the fall, or do you think the schools that are still trying to put on football are taking the right approach?
[GA]: Well, I just had this conversation this morning with someone and it ended up being him saying, “Well listen, the Big 10 talked to a bunch of high-level scientists and doctors and they said no, you can’t play football, and then the Southeast Conference said we talked to our people that are experts and they said we can play football.” So what are the rest of us supposed to think? I don’t know. I have no idea. I’m hoping it all works out. I’m hoping that those people who chose to say, “Hey, let’s go for it,” I’m hoping it works out for them, I really do, because that would be a good sign for the rest of us.
[FC]: Having been born in Ann Arbor and having attended law school there, I root for two schools: Michigan football and men’s basketball and UConn men’s and women’s basketball.
[GA]: There are not too many places that are better than University of Michigan.
[FC]: Michigan did lure away UConn’s previous athletic director, Warde Manuel.
[GA]: Yes, they did.
[FC]: Do you still have a good relationship with him?
[GA]: Yes, amazing. He’s a good personal friend. He’s very nice, a great guy.
[FC]: It looks like you have a tremendous class coming in. You must be very excited.
[GA]: Yeah, this group of freshmen is a good group. I’m excited to see what they can do. I’m really excited for them.
[FC]: I know that nobody gets a free pass with you, they all have to earn their way on, but you must be stoked about Paige Buechers.
[GA]: I am, I’m excited.
[FC]: I guess you were not doing the Olympics this time around, you had stopped after the last two, right?
[GA]: Yes, the travel and the time commitment—eight years is a very long time. I felt like it was somebody else’s turn.
[FC]: In this current difficult political climate, do you feel added need to guide the strong young women you coach? Or do you feel in some ways that the new generation coaches you a bit? How does that interplay work?
[GA]: I think it’s a little bit of both. I feel like I have an obligation to coach them—that’s why they came to Connecticut. They came here to play for me, to see and to learn, and it’s my job to teach them. At the same time, I’m able to learn a little bit from them each year. It’s obviously a different era, they’re a different generation, and each group has its own characteristics, and like in wine or in my restaurant, I want to be better at what I do. Every year, I want to be better. I don’t think there’s ever been a time since I’ve been at Connecticut that the following year we did exactly the same thing we did the year before. We just don’t do that. That’s the same with the kids I’ve had every year—I get different kinds of kids, and I have to learn how to get the most out of them, each and every one of them.
[FC]: I know you have to go. I so appreciate all the time you’ve given me. Thank you kindly.
[GA]: Thank you!