Restaurateur Marcello Villani is bringing an Italian tradition to Jacksonville while paying tribute to his late mother.
Villani owns Bistro X at 1440 San Marco Blvd.
On Nov. 24 he opened Limoncello Ristorante in the space that had been the Onyx Lounge in Bistro X.
The two restaurants are the same building and share the same address. Bistro X is more high-end and Limoncello offers more affordable prices.
It is a similar concept to the restaurants his parents owned on the island of Capri on the Amalfi coast.
It is the latest change in the restaurant that he bought in early 2019, just two months before the pandemic shutdown.
Over the years, he has removed many dishes priced more than $35. The brand has been changed from Bistro AIX to Bistro X, although that isn’t reflected online or on social media. That restaurant received a $200,000 makeover with new drapes, furniture and a $140,000 kitchen.
The creation of Limoncello Ristorante cost about $90,000, he said. It involved using Bistro X furniture in the space, painting the accent portion of walls a cheerful bright yellow, adding art and making minor additions to the former catering kitchen.
“For catering you need more and larger equipment, while for the individual you need a few more smaller items, you know, like a pasta cooker,” Villani said.
The new restaurant meant hiring three new cooks and two dishwashers. Current Bistro X waitstaff will work in both restaurants, though only one restaurant per shift. He plans to have new uniforms for the Limoncello Ristorante waitstaff to differentiate them from those working at Bistro X. Schedules will rotate regularly.
“Obviously, the waiters that work in Bistro X will make more money than the people who work in Limoncello. So we want to give everybody the opportunity to make some money,” he said.
The ingredients used in the dishes will be the same in both restaurants. The large bar that had been the centerpiece of the Onyx Lounge will serve both restaurants for the time being.
That is a major consideration because these are essentially two restaurants that happen to share walls.
There are separate phone numbers for reservations. The menus are not interchangeable. Food served at one will not be served at the other. Both have independent computer systems.
Patrons won’t be able to dine in Bistro X and order from the Limoncello Ristorante menu.
Pricing is another difference, and at Limoncello Ristorante, no item is more than $15.
It has an antipasti course of Bruschetta, Rollatini, Mozzarella Fritta, among others. The second course includes pasta dishes, some seafood and fish and two chicken items. Gnocchi Tetta is cooked ham in cream. Polpettone Napoletano is a Neapolitan beef meatloaf served over mashed potatoes.
Villani said he can afford to offer the lower prices by relying on volume and serving smaller, European-size portions.
“It’s not like you go in the typical American Italian restaurant, where they give you so much pasta that it takes three days to eat it all. Our portions is enough for you to eat and maybe take some home,” he said.
Villani, 66, spent much of his time growing up in his mother’s home kitchen. He remembers being as young as 6 and watching her prepare Sunday meals. He asked questions and may have received a taste test or two. When he became a bit older, she allowed him to help with the family meal and later work in the restaurant.
In the early 1970s, he worked in Bermuda. He came to the United States in 1984.
Villani has made his career as a restaurant manager. After a month in New York City, he was hired at the newly opened Cipriani in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. It was an instant hit, he said.
He came to Jacksonville when his wife, Sabeen, received a job promotion that transferred her here.
“When she asked me if I’d move to Jacksonville I said ‘Jacksonville? Where?’ But after coming down here a few times I kept liking it more and more,” he said.
Limoncello Ristorante had been a part of his plan since buying Bistro X.
Most of the dishes are similar to those his mother prepared.
The name comes from her love of lemons and the refreshing mixture of lemon peels steeped in vodka for three weeks, then strained and sweetened with simple syrup that is popular in Italy.
It also allows Villani to remember her in a more important way.
“She recently passed away from brain cancer. The idea with this restaurant is to be able to give some of the proceeds of this restaurant to a cancer society to research this terrible disease,” he said.