Constantly Evolving Il Fornaio Always Stays True to its Italian Roots

Il Fornaio’s Festa Regionale loyalty program runs two weeks out of every month, and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
Il Fornaio’s Festa Regionale loyalty program runs two weeks out of every month, and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

Il Fornaio, with an average unit volume of $5 million a year, makes monthly changes to its menu but always remains true to its Italian heritage.

The logistics of Maurizio Mazzon’s job are insanely complicated—and that’s just the way he likes it.

As senior vice president and executive chef at Il Fornaio, part of Mazzon’s job is to source rare ingredients from various regions of Italy and have them distributed, in fresh and perfect condition, to all 22 locations of this upscale Italian eatery—for a new menu every single month.

This is all in service of Il Fornaio’s Festa Regionale loyalty program that runs two weeks out of every month, and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Each month Mazzon chooses one of the 20 regions of Italy to feature on a special menu, and he consults with Il Fornaio’s chefs from that region to select dishes to include. The May menu, for example, showcased dishes from Sardinia, such as Tamatta cun Casu, a tomato salad with Sardinian Pecorino Cheese, and Panna Cotta al Mirto Rivisitata, a blueberry custard with a sauce made from Mirto, a liqueur that’s popular in Sardinia.

Chef Mazzon has had to source foods like squid ink pasta, young Pecorino cheese, and porchetta—a cured meat where an entire deboned pig is seasoned, layered with stuffing, and roasted. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the authentic Italian recipes Mazzon chooses every month differ depending on exactly what part of the chosen region the chefs hail from. “If you look around the U.S., nobody does that because they think it’s crazy ... and it is,” Mazzon says.

But it’s been worth the effort. The Festa Regionale program has amassed about 20,000 members, who get a “passport stamp” from the featured region when they order an item from the Festa Regionale menu. Participants also receive gifts from the restaurant for collecting stamps, such as a Tuscan spice mix or an Umbrian spicy olive oil in a heart-shaped bottle.

The loyalty program used to be solely paper-based, with members carrying around a paper “Passoporto,” but in July 2015 Il Fornaio introduced a digital Passoporto as part of its mobile app. Since then, membership in the Festa Regionale program has increased by 35 percent.

This popularity has made scoring a spot on one of the 12 Festa Regionale menus each year a priority for officials in the various regions of Italy. “They do everything they can to make it worth our while because they’ve found it to be a very good way of marketing their region in the United States, particularly for some of the less familiar regions,” says Michael Mindel, senior vice president of marketing at Il Fornaio. “When we do a more obscure region like Apulia or Basilicata, they’re very enthusiastic to get in front of the Il Fornaio audience.”

Besides the Festa Regionale program, catering is another offering that brings customers in (and out) the door. Depending on the restaurant’s location, large quantities of regular menu items may be going out to weddings, meetings, banquets, and parties. Transporting fresh Italian dishes made with perishable specialty ingredients can be a challenge, so the restaurant’s caterers point customers to the special catering menu that’s stocked with the more easily portable items from the regular menu.

And then there are the events: The restaurant’s 22 locations organize special events ranging from beer tastings, to cooking classes, to tastings from the Festa Regionale menu. For example, one of the chain’s chefs, who hails from the Italian region of Liguria, put on a special dinner in his restaurant where guests were served small bites from the entire Festa Regionale menu based on that region. The chef had the opportunity to share personal stories from Liguria with his local community, and guests were treated to an experience that was both educational and tasty.

Importing rare, fresh ingredients for a menu that changes monthly and offering special location-based events are not the only ways Il Fornaio distinguishes itself. The company is also one of the early adopters of providing nutritional information to guests.

Later this year, restaurants with more than 20 locations will be required to offer nutrition data to diners, though the details of the FDA’s menu-labeling rule and the compliance dates keep changing. “We decided not to wait because it was something our guests had asked about,” Mindel says. “It was worth our effort to get that information onto the menu so we would be in compliance with whatever statute came down the pike, so people can make informed decisions, and to show how healthy a lot of the items on our menus are.” This also allows calorie-conscious guests to “bank” their calories. For example, if a diner who’s watching calories wants to indulge in a creamy plate of pasta, they’ll know that selecting a cup of minestrone soup as an appetizer adds only 80 calories to their meal.

Providing this data is expensive and labor-intensive, since a restaurant needs to hire an analyst to conduct nutritional analysis of each recipe. It’s unclear whether the results of all this effort will change guests’ dining choices, but the response from Il Fornaio’s guests has been overwhelmingly positive, Mindel says. “We haven’t seen much of a shift in terms of how people are ordering, and there are probably always going to be people who would prefer not to know how many calories they’re eating,” he says. “But to us, the trend is that people are asking for more information about the food that they eat, not less.”

The chain is growing organically as well as growing its customer offerings. Most recently, Il Fornaio added a location in Woodland Hills, California, in October. Because it was the first new restaurant they’d built in seven years, the Woodland Hills location has a distinctly different design than the others.

“Each restaurant that we do is pretty unique,” Mindel says. “We start with a clean sheet of paper, and the design depends upon what the neighborhood is like.” For example, because Woodland Hills is in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, the restaurant features abundant sunlight and light colors. “It’s a little more of a rustic build-out than we have in some of our other locations,” Mindel says. “It’s got a Tuscan farmhouse feel, with a lot of reclaimed wood, and a very open floor plan.”

Though the menu at the Woodland Hills location is almost identical to the other locations’ menus, there have been some changes to the actual operation of the restaurant. For example, the location boasts a bigger bar, community tables, and modern features like wines on tap.

Offering a monthly menu that features hard-to-get ingredients straight from Italy, providing nutritional information to guests, staying on top of dining trends in 22 different locations, and holding custom events all require a lot of effort and expense, but as Chef Mazzon notes, “We like to do crazy things.” With 20,000 Festa Regionale members and 22 restaurants averaging over $5 million in sales per year, clearly it all pays off.

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