By: Sebastien (Mani) Manigat | Photography: Jason McNamara
Earlier this month, I sat down with Joe Aiello, the man behind the iconic moustache. Joe is a pretty popular figure within the culinary community here in Cornwall. From his humble immigrant beginnings as a dishwasher in downtown Ottawa to the success of the former Porto Bello Restaurant, Joe has always approached his work with the same dedication. Quiet and soft-spoken, Joe is the quintessential family man whose character is imprinted in his restaurant Moustache Joe’s. He recently came out of retirement (for the second time!) and will be participating in his first Seaway Food Festival Restaurant Week this spring.
Joe, welcome back! Now, some people may not be familiar with your story… You originally opened your restaurant 8 years ago?
Yeah, I opened here in 2008. June 2008 I believe… I was retired at the time. I missed it… the restaurant business I mean. I missed the cooking aspect. I missed the people and all the socializing. Having a glass of wine with my friends… That’s what really made me decide to come back. It was a project that I started with my daughter Amanda. We were supposed to just be open for breakfast and lunch: sandwiches, soups, and stuff like that. We would close in the afternoon and go home. But, as soon as we opened, people were asking us “why don’t you open for dinner?” They kept asking and asking… and we just dove right in and tried the dinner service. And right from the start, it was busy. People really were receptive to what we were doing. I really enjoyed it, being back, you know?
You sold the restaurant in 2013. Went into “semi-retirement” again. Then, earlier this year, you decided to come back. Why?
It’s pretty much the same reason as before. I just missed it too much. I miss the socializing… my staff… the cooking especially. It was pretty simple if you ask me!
Let’s go back a bit to the beginning. You’ve been literally cooking your whole life. I read somewhere you started cooking at the age of 12?
Yeah… it’s been a long time! (laughs) I used to work at Diana Restaurant. It was on Bank Street, between Queen and Albert, across the old Capitol Theater in Ottawa. I worked at a couple of other places too. So, there are a lot of folks that I learned from. I was pretty alert and could pick things up quickly. I had a passion and a love for it, and, surprisingly, it came to me pretty easily.
You moved to Cornwall in the early 1980s and opened your first restaurant Porto Bello. A lot has changed since then.
Right. When I started here, people were really looking for a fine dining experience. I tried to give that to them. We had a big restaurant, 12,000 ft²; we could host big weddings and big banquets. We were pretty successful. It changed quite a bit in the years obviously, the landscape, the culture. But now, I think that “mood” is kind of back. I feel that same desire is returning. And that is especially true when you look at all the changes we’ve seen here downtown.
Ok, so what do you think hasn’t changed after all these years?
Oh… That’s a tough one. (laughs) I think for me what hasn’t changed is the people. The people I cater to. They have not changed. Seriously! The same people that used to come to my restaurant at Porto Bello’s still come down here to say hello. They stay sometimes late in the evening and we talk. We have a glass of wine, we laugh. It’s like a big family. My whole family works here: my son, my daughter, and my two boys. When customers come here, it gives them that family environment, like they’re home, you know? Does that make sense? It’s easy going. At lunchtime you can have a sandwich, you can sit down, you can relax. Later in the day, it’s very easy going.
A lot of people are excited to have you back. You have created a lot of good ties in the community. Why do you think that is?
Well, I’m always friendly to people and always, always, go the extra mile. I love the restaurant industry. On any given weekend when all the tables are full and it’s just my daughter and me cooking in the kitchen, I make sure I visit every single table and say hello to everyone. I like having them here. It feels like home.
You talk a lot about home and family. Is that where the inspiration for your menu comes from? Recipes passed down from generation to generation?
Well… no… it’s pretty hard to copy your mother (laughs)! She was a supreme cook. I still miss her cooking. When I was in high school when I came back from the end of the day, I could smell her cooking from miles away. Honest to God! (laughs) But I had a passion for it (cooking) from the start. Throughout the beginning of my career I was fortunate to work with some really great chefs. They literally took me under their wings. And supported me a lot. I learned a lot a long the way. But for my menu, I just wanted to keep it simple: good food and quality product. And it speaks for itself. I never cut corners. Also, I put a big focus on the “environment”: making sure our people feel welcome and comfortable. That’s where the inspiration comes from really.
So, when you’re at home, I’m assuming you have the same approach. What do you cook for your self?
Sandwiches! (laughs) No, no, I cook at home quite often. Especially when I have my family over. We like to get together for big Italian traditional meals. You know, we do the “Sunday Gravy”….
What’s the “Sunday Gravy”?
Oh!… It’s a heavy meat sauce with chunks of meat… meatballs, sausages, and veal… whatever you like! You cook it very slowly. It’s great. And w are all-together. Talking. Having a glass of wine. That’s the best.
It seems for you it’s always the same thing… family… love…food… wine!
That’s what it’s all about! (laughs)
Now you will be participating in your first restaurant week. What can the customers expect from you in the restaurant week? What can we expect from your menu?
A good, homemade, quality meal in a casual atmosphere. We like to keep things simple here. We want you to feel comfortable.
It seems pretty simple?
Well… no, no… I don’t like complicated things. The best things are the simple things.