Il Palio Aloi Restaurants dish up deliciousness for New Canaanites
Upon visiting New Canaan for the first time, Aloi Restaurant's Executive Chef Margherita Aloi Pereira was so impressed that she called her husband in Manhattan and said, "Honey, I think we have to move."
That was almost ten years ago. Based upon her stellar reputation, she had been asked to work as a consultant for a local restaurant owner in town. Owner of Arezzo, a premier Italian restaurant in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, Margherita arrived in New Canaan as a consultant and ended up staying and opening Aloi Restaurant on Main Street.
She and her husband, Cliff, recently expanded their operations and took the reins of Il Palio Restaurant, located in Shelton's Enterprise Corporate Park.
"Back then, I didn't even know where Connecticut was," Margherita said. Today the energetic couple happily shuttle between the two busy restaurants and oversee all of its operations.
Steeped in managerial experience, Cliff hails from a family of restaurateurs -- his younger brother Bobby is a principal in the Metronome Hospitality Group that manages four restaurants and nightclubs in New York and Atlantic City -- Providence New York City/Atlantic City Triumph, Room, Branch and Strata.
According to Cliff, developer Robert Scinto asked Margherita to join his Shelton restaurant seven years ago after visiting Aloi. He wanted the couple to take the helm of Il Palio back then but Cliff explained that the timing wasn't right. "We had just opened in New Canaan and both Margherita and I felt a deep commitment to Aloi," Cliff said.
However, Scinto fell in-love with Margherita's cooking and became a frequent customer.
Using only the freshest ingredients and seasonal produce, Margherita describes her cooking style as "simple." A talented painter, she also enjoys creating a visually appealing presentation, especially when preparing appetizers. "It's got to be perfect," she esaid. "I'm very particular. For example, when we order our cheeses, I want it to be imported from a special part of Italy."
Margherita also demands that her vendors comply with her high standards and, when they don't, she simply sends the food back to them. She recounted how she consistently refused to accept some of the poor quality fish that certain suppliers sent to her. "Finally, they got the idea that I really only wanted their absolute freshest fish or don't bother to send anything to me," Margherita explained. "It's got to be the best ingredient possible or I will not use it."
Menus at Aloi and Il Palio change four times a year, to coincide with the changes in the New England seasons. Obviously passionate about the creative process -- from designing new recipes to displays that look, smell and taste delicious -- Margherita obviously enjoys her work. "There is nothing I would rather be doing," she enthuses. "I absolutely love what I do. When I look back at my life, there might have been some things that I would have done a little differently, but my work is not one of them."
Growing up in the hills of Piedmont, in a small village of Tucci, Margherita was recruited at the young age of 18 to be part of a new trendy Manhattan restaurant called Le Madri, or "the mothers," in 1989. The owners' concept was to bring Italian women from various regions of Italy to Le Madri for a couple of months so they could share authentic recipes and true home-style Italian cooking with its upscale clientele. Although she had only recently graduated from Italy's prestigious Culinary Institute of Barolo (she began her schooling there at 14-years-old) -- and not speaking a word of English -- Margherita ended up staying in America.
With its white columns and picket fence, in a building that used to house a church, Margherita said that Aloi Restaurant is exactly how she envisioned her restaurant would one day be.
"When I first visited New Canaan, I got such a sense of peace here," Margherita said. "I make choices with my heart and I just felt that this town reminded me of where I grew up in Italy. I felt something special. It's as if this -- owning Aloi here -- was meant to be."
She and Cliff are both excited, though, about taking ownership of Il Palio. This summer the restaurant had its best summer season since opening ten years ago.
Katie Scinto, vice president of sales for Enterprise Corporate Park said, "The buzz around town is that Il Palio is an exciting place to be. Margherita and Cliff really brought a new dynamic to the restaurant. They treat Il Palio like it's their baby."
From augmenting the restaurant's already stellar interior design with vases filled with fresh flowers to implementing new offerings, such as sold-out pasta making classes, the Aloi-Pereira touch has already made its mark on Il Palio.
About the pasta making offering, Cliff explained, "We only allow 20 participants because we want to keep it intimate," he said. "We set tables of four and there is a pasta machine in the center of every table. Margherita takes you through the whole process, every step of the way. The local foodies have really loved this."
A connoisseur of wine, which she learned from a young age from her father, a wine producer, Il Palio hosts an Italian Regional Food and Wine series that includes a four-course dinner paired with wines from different areas of Italy. "This has been tremendously popular," Cliff said.
"If you've never been to one, you have to try it," she said.
Cliff emphasized, though, that Il Palio also welcomes families to lunch and dinner. One of the changes he and Margherita made to Il Palio was in lowering its pricing to a more moderate, affordable range. "We want everyone to feel comfortable coming here to eat," he noted. "We welcome children and seniors and anyone who enjoys delicious, homemade Italian cooking."
Dinner entrees start at $17, and there is an extensive bar menu that includes items from $5 on up.
"This is a beautiful restaurant and we are committed to offering the best food and services possible," Margherita said.
Il Palio, at Five Corporate Drive, is open for lunch, Monday to Friday, and dinner, Monday to Saturday. For more information, call 203-944-0770.
Aloi Restaurant, at 62 Main Street, New Canaan, is open for lunch Tuesday to Friday, and dinner, Tuesday to Sunday. For more information, call 203-966-4345.