The Flying Pizzaman

Carlo Distefano, owner of the San Carlo chain of restaurants.
Carlo Distefano, owner of the San Carlo chain of restaurants.
  • Carlo Distefano came to Yorkshire from Sicily at the age of 17 with £12 in his pocket. Today he’s the chairman of one of the country’s foremost independent restaurant chains. Sheena Hastings met him. Pictures by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
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CARLO Distefano has no hobbies. He works at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week – rigorously controlling every aspect of his restaurants. There’s no time to swing a golf club and anyway he isn’t interested; food is his life.

Now 71, and looking fit and trim despite the occupational hazards, he hovers up and down the motorways in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce Ghost, clocking up 1,200 miles a week. Carlo, who arrived with £12 and a work permit to take up a job at a barber shop in Leeds in 1962, founded his first restaurant in 1992, now has a chain of 22 Italian eateries – 16 in this country and six in the Middle East and Thailand.

Carlo Distefano, owner of the San Carlo chain of restaurants.

Carlo Distefano, owner of the San Carlo chain of restaurants.

In between eating and meeting at his restaurants from Leeds and Manchester to Liverpool, Birmingham, Leicester, Bristol and London, he uses the back of the car as his office, talking to each of his managers and chefs a few times a day, and negotiating with suppliers in Italy who send shipments twice a week.

He says with pride that he was “the first one” to open his restaurants on Christmas Day – all because he, Carlo, was bored rigid by festive TV and didn’t know what to do with himself – and figured he couldn’t be the only one who felt that way. His long-time partner Sandra keeps busy with her horses, which is just as well because Carlo falls into bed at midnight and hasn’t taken a holiday in 12 years.

“Heh heh, I shocked her recently. I said ‘Yes, let’s take a break. I want to go to Auschwitz’. But I don’t think that’s what she had in mind, and it hasn’t happened.” His English is brilliant, delivered in a torrent that’s heavily rinsed with the accent of his native Sicily.

He has that great gift of giving you full attention but, with the flick of a beady eye now and then, taking in every detail of what the staff are doing and who’s coming or going. Dressed in a quietly expensive suit, crisp white shirt with cufflinks and sporting a black watch that’s more Malibu surfer than obvious designer bling, he tucks into seafood risotto washed down with sparkling mineral water.

We’re at the San Carlo Flying Pizza, in north Leeds – one of two restaurants he owns in the city. The old “see and be seen” Flying Pizza of the glory days had nosedived, changed hands and lost both its zing and its well-heeled clientele when Distefano rescued it from receivership five years ago and spent more than £1m on a radical refurbishment.

“I’d come here as a young man in the 1970s and knew the owners,” he says. “It was exciting and vibrant, and drew people in from all over the place. When I found out it was in receivership, of course I went for it. I already had a city centre restaurant in Leeds, but it meant a lot to me to take on the Flying Pizza.” Within weeks, the SCFP went from takings of £15k a week to £60k.

While we tackle the risotto, a midweek lunch crowd arrives. Some are clearly doing business, a few tables are occupied by groups of well-dressed women and there’s the odd duo of elderly mother/middle-aged son. Not bad for the time of week, and weekends are very busy, but gone are the days when punters happily waited 90 minutes for a table.

Distefano seems to relish the fact that you have to work hard to attract and keep a loyal clientele, with the daunting statistic that across the country upwards of 85 per cent of restaurants fail. His business, which includes the San Carlo, San Carlo Fumo, San Carlo Fiorentina, Bottega, Chichetti and Signor Rossi brands, has boomed in the recession and turnover is now more than £60m. He says he has requests every week to take over and turn around restaurants that have suffered a downturn; he also fends off regular buyout offers.

“No, no, it’s not going to happen,” says the maestro, with an extravagant flourish of his fork. “This is my family business and I intend to keep it that way. I won’t retire, so they’ll have to carry me out of one of the restaurants, after a lovely meal...”

Four of his five children are involved in the business, including Marcello, 36, who’s now managing director. Carlo says that what stops him simply handing over the reins to Marcello, Alessandro, Sacha and Marta is “a passion for food...and I wouldn’t know what else to do with myself”.

He was born in Ragusa, Sicily, and his father was in construction but also loved to cook. “He was so happy in the kitchen at weekends,” says Carlo, who admits he isn’t any great shakes in that department. His gifts, he says, are business acumen and single-mindedness about quality.

“The most beautiful vegetables and fruit grew there, and I loved to go to the market with my grandmother and pick perfect peppers, aubergines and fish or seafood.

“Some of my father’s favourite recipes, such as pasta with fagioli [beans], are on our restaurant menus now, and we import fantastically sweet tomatoes from Sicily as well as seasonal ingredients from the rest of Italy.”

Carlo did respectably at school, and also worked hard from the age of nine in a cafe and then sweeping floors at a hairdresser’s shop. His mother wanted him to be an accountant and he began his studies but quickly decided it wasn’t for him. With few other opportunities in Ragusa, a yearning to see somewhere new, a work permit provided by a Leeds barber and £12 loaned by his brother, 17-year-old Carlo set out by third-class train to find another life in Leeds.

“Italy still had the shadow of fascism hanging over it, and I was a political animal already. Britain seemed to me to be a paradise of democracy and free speech. That’s still how I see it, after 53 years.”

His one leisure activity is three-and-a-half hours every Sunday afternoon going at it with hammer and tongs at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. “I love to join in political debate, and that Speakers’ Corner is there for anyone to say what they think. I’m very political, and so was my father – but he was a communist. I loved Margaret Thatcher, and I am a David Cameron supporter. To me Conservative is the natural way to be, and Tory policies help business to thrive, giving employment and helping communities.”

Once he started work in Leeds – and immediately repaid that £12 – his star began to rise. Within a couple of years he’d qualified as a hairdresser and was earning £40 while others’ wages were £12 a week. He often took himself off to London and ate at The Dorchester or The Savoy – gleaning ideas that would eventually gestate into a simple formula: “Five-star food at reasonable prices”.

In the meantime he opened his own barber shop, then three more... then a coffee bar and a discotheque. After a brief return to Sicily, where he quickly realised he was now “too English” to fit in, he returned and opened a hairdresser’s and a ladies’ fashion shop in St Ann’s Square, Manchester.

By 1980 he and others were partners in the city’s lively Coco Italian restaurant, soon joined by Coco II. In 1992 he felt it was time “to express myself properly”, so he sold out to his partners and opened his first restaurant, in Birmingham – a move that was seen as highly risky by his friends.

Four years later San Carlo Bristol opened, then Leicester, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Cheshire, London...and simultaneously other brands were acquired or born and opened, both here and in Kuwait, Beirut and Bangkok. In some places he has two of his brands competing across the road from each other – and both do a roaring trade.

The King Street West branch in Manchester has had takings of £73.5m over its ten-year life, and is a magnet for footballers and other celebrities. He denies that they get special treatment, though. “No, they don’t get discounts nor priority...but they are good for business,” he says with a twinkle.

The Carlo Distefano formula has worked spectacularly, and even some of the Press’s sternest critics of “chain food” have been won over. The team are working on more sites in London “because it’s easier to get really good Italian staff to come and work there”. Around 80 per cent of his 950-odd personnel are Italian, and some go back to Italy for regular training sessions.

He says his recipe for success is no secret: “We always use the best ingredients. I could make 20 per cent more on what I sell but I can’t justify that. I think to myself ‘what would I think was a reasonable price to pay for this dish?’ I work to that rule.

“The best tomato puree from Sicily is £13 a jar, but that’s because its taste is superb. It’s the same with everything else, from olive oil to lobster. I could cut corners, but then our restaurants wouldn’t be so good.”

He avoids uniform “chain” decor, and one of his other rules is to take on and keep top chefs and allow them to express their individuality with some signature dishes. His chef friend of 30 years, Aldo Zilli, is chef consiliere to the group, helping to maintain standards and consulting on menus.

At the end of the day, says Carlo, it’s all down to the P-word: “You have to have passion. If you don’t, it’s just too hard to survive.”