Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003 | 8:25 a.m.
Pride in its decor. Pride in its product.
Talk to its owners for a few minutes, and it becomes clear that pride is a driving force in their lives.
Not just for owner Gaetano Palmeri, but also his wife, Rory, who keeps the books; his sons Michael and Daniel, who manage the restaurant and serve the customers; and his son Nicholas, who helps out wherever he's needed.
As Gaetano, 54, speaks of his restaurant, which he opened in 2002, it is as if he is talking about a fourth son. And as Rory listens to her sons talk about their lives, she positively glows.
Neither Gaetano nor Rory had much money growing up. In fact, when they married in 1977 Gaetano was working on a cruise ship and it would be four years before they could open their first restaurant.
But open it they did, and Gaetano's in Calabasas, Calif., quickly became known as one of the best Italian restaurants if not the best in the San Fernando Valley. By the time Gaetano decided to come to Las Vegas, his California restaurant had attained a four-star rating from the Restaurant Writers' Association of California.
His Las Vegas operation, in the Siena Promenade off South Eastern Avenue, has received several accolades, including a 2003 Epicurean Award from Las Vegas Life magazine for Best New Off-the-Strip Restaurant.
The eatery is immaculate in every detail: black and pecan tablecloths accentuate spotless table settings; the interior color gives the establishment a Tuscan flavor, and paintings -- all part of the Palmeris' personal collection -- add colorful splashes.
Terra cotta tile gives good sound quality to the sizable dining room, which seats 150.
"We wanted it to have a more European style, like Florence or Venice," Gaetano said. "We wanted to give people a restaurant different from any other in the area."
All in the family
From the beginning, Gaetano's priority has been family. He enjoyed a large household while growing up in Sicily with five brothers and two sisters.
"Everybody grew up in the kitchen," he said. "We were into good food since I was young. We grew up with natural, organic stuff. Every day you would go shopping. No one does that anymore."
Gaetano got his passion for cooking from his mother, who had gotten her recipes from her mother.
But Gaetano's pride in his work, family and life came from his father, who owned a trucking company and shipped goods from one end of the country to the other.
"I tried to know my father, but he was a very proud man, and worked hard to support his family," Gaetano said. "He did anything to make a living for us."
Gaetano's journey to America is well-detailed on the back of his restaurant's menu, written by oldest son Michael. It details how he began working in the restaurant world at age 12, and how at 21 he entered the elite rifle regiments of the Italian army.
While working for Stimar Cruise Lines, he met and fell in love with Rory, who was born in Los Angeles.
Rory, 52, had almost no exposure to fine dining as a child. Her mother, she describes, was "a '50s stay-at-home mom. We rarely went out for dinner."
But Rory found a knack for dealing with others in her 11 years as a phone service representative. Although her first love was art, she realized management was where the money was, and took management supervision at Valley College in Los Angeles. She was ready to put it to work.
She got that chance when she and Gaetano opened their first restaurant in 1981. Although she took care of all the business' paperwork, she had to work at home while raising the children.
Her children never went hungry, thanks to the restaurant and Rory's skills at cooking chicken soup and preparing breakfast.
In an age where most children go their own way once they're old enough, Gaetano and Rory have rarely been apart from their sons, and the majority of them want to stay with the restaurant.
The Palmeris credit their sons' love of culture and fine food to all the traveling they have done together.
"We wanted them to have everything we didn't have as children," Rory said.
How many places has the Palmeri family been? Let's put it this way: The only place Gaetano has not been is Argentina.
"That's where I get so much of my knowledge, from being around people," Gaetano said.
Passing the torch
Gaetano's perfectionist spirit is fully evident in his sons.
Michael, 24, is currently majoring in hotel management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and plans to take over the current location once he graduates in about three months.
"It's pretty much my baby, the way I look at it," he said. "I have no reason to leave Las Vegas, because I love it here."
In Calabasas, Michael began following in his father's footsteps at 8 years old, "following the chefs around."
By 13, he was in a suit at the front door, greeting customers. At the age of 17, he had his trial by fire.
"Gaetano had to have open-heart surgery, and by myself I ran the restaurant," he said. "I worked 8 to 12 hours a day, and learned how everything works."
He initially swore he would never operate his own restaurant full time because "I never saw my father, and when I did I saw how much stress he was under. This is not easy work."
But a singular experience changed his mind, and it happened shortly after he arrived in Las Vegas for school in 1999.
"I got a job at Zeffirino (Ristorante) at The Venetian as a server," he remembers. "I got a real passion for the business working there. I realized it was something I was good at doing."
So good, in fact, that when Michael gave his notice, the owner asked if he would train the other members of the serving staff.
"I make sure the service is beyond perfect," he said. "Everything, from service, ambience and food, has got to be perfect."
Much of that ethic came from his father, Michael said. The other part came from the extensive traveling at a young age.
"I grew up with fine dining," he said. "It just comes natural."
'Papa' knows best
Daniel, 21, got involved with the restaurant at age 13, and remembers learning responsibility from both parents.
"We were always in the restaurant growing up," he said. "We used to run around and get yelled at. We learned how to act the right way, though."
Working for his parents, he said, "Can get crazy at times, but it brings us all closer together. It has its ups and downs, but it's better than working for other people."
His attempts at working elsewhere didn't go well, he remembers.
"I tried working at Home Depot as a forklift operator," he said. "When they told me the Christmas trees were coming and had to be unloaded, I was out of there."
For the most part, he has "worked for papa," giving Gaetano a smile and getting one back in return.
Like Michael, Daniel began managing the restaurant at 17, and now runs it every Sunday. His goal is to stay with the Henderson location "until we open something else, then I'll go and run that."
His drive and determination were reflected in his high school years. Daniel played football for four years in Calabasas, becoming team captain, and was awarded most valuable player.
When asked why he didn't pursue football, Daniel pointed to his torso and said, "screws in my shoulder."
Valentine's Day nightmare
Youngest son Nicholas, who turned 20 today, vividly remembers his first experience in the restaurant world.
"When I was 13, the first day I worked was Valentine's Day, which was a nightmare," he said. "I was the official flower guy, giving roses to every woman, and we ended up being so busy I ended up being busboy."
"His first promotion," Gaetano said, laughing.
Eventually, he would work one night a week, "while Danny was playing football," and he remembers how all the receipts had to be done by hand -- no computers.
"That taught me to be a hard worker," he said. "A lot of people my age don't know the meaning of hard work."
Need proof? While Nicholas was taking 12 units at UNLV and working part-time at the restaurant, he also pledged Alpha Epsilon Pi, a prestigious fraternity.
He moved to Las Vegas in January 2000, a few weeks before his parents, to finish high school. Danny moved to Las Vegas in June of that year after graduation.
Nicholas is currently pursuing business marketing and management at UNLV, and will minor in business law. During his last year of college, he will pursue internships to see where his interests lie.
It probably won't be in restaurants, however.
"Don't get me wrong. I like working with my family, but I want to have holidays off," he said. "I want to have time off. I want to have a life."
"We would never force him to do anything," Rory is quick to add.
Nicholas' work ethic came directly from his father, he said.
"My father taught me at a young age not to do anything half-assed," he said. "If I don't do things at 100 percent, it's not good enough."
All Gaetano's sons' work has paid off; Michael owns his own house near the restaurant, and Daniel and Nicholas are moving into their own house together as soon as it's finished.
Movers and shakers
Gaetano's decision to come to Las Vegas, and his subsequent decision to sell his California restaurant and focus only on Southern Nevada, was driven by his priority: his family.
"We had a family meeting and decided moving to Las Vegas was the best thing to do," he said.
Added Rory, "I wanted to live in a city where there was always something to do. Not to mention the (lower) house prices."
Actually, the Palmeris came to Las Vegas to retire. But a variety of factors led to their continued involvement in fine food and service.
For one, Gaetano still owned the Calabasas restaurant, and commuted there several times a month to conduct business. He did that for two years, and finally decided the physical wear and tear -- not to mention time apart from his family -- was not worth it.
Add to that the Palmeris were disappointed in the lack of fine Italian restaurants in their area.
"We couldn't find a restaurant to eat," Rory said.
And lastly, all freely admit that hard work is in their blood. Relaxing, at least at this point in their lives, isn't an option.
Having his immediate family close to him helps to soften the blow that most of his family still lives in Sicily. Only one of his brothers, Ottavio, lives in this country, and works as a chef at Il Fornaio in Beverly Hills.
"I last saw my mother four years ago," Gaetano said. "It's tough, especially when you have a big family and try to be closer. I call everyone every other week."
If and when Gaetano ever retires, he wants to resume his travels. But his motivation will always be the same: to be successful in whatever he does, and to take pride in what he does.
Gaetano is sure of one thing: His family is very proud of him and his success.
"Oh, yeah. Are you kidding?" Rory said. "That's a major understatement."