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The secret ingredients from Liverpool’s famous Il Forno

Owner Paolo Cillo shares the story behind Il Forno and its huge success

“If you have the best quality ingredients you don’t need to go crazy because the best dishes are always the most simple ones cooked with passion.”

That mantra sums up Paolo’s approach. He dislikes needless rules that stifle the team, wants his guests to be relaxed and “make memories in their second home” and denounces the role of accountants in the hospitality industry.

His stripped-back view of what works hails from the bustling kitchen of his family’s business in Potenza, 100 miles inland from Naples, where he first helped as a 13-year-old boy.

From Italy to England

“Time flew, my love for cooking and hospitality grew and by the time I was 20 I’d moved to England and opened the restaurant, Il Forno. It was hard at first. I had to adapt to the culture and make a few changes to the menu. For example, British people like the soup hotter than in Italy!” he says.

“A few years later I realised I didn’t know how to do anything else,” Paolo adds. That modesty and humble approach are attributes he says are crucial in ensuring he can always put himself in the customers’ shoes.

For Paolo the restaurant is like a theatre, but not a stuffy, pretentious one – he wants people to enjoy the show, make lasting memories and, importantly, come back for more in the future.

“We’re purely here to make our guests happy,” he says. “If they have a problem with a steak or a starter we will put it right because they save up to have an occasion somewhere special like this.

“Because they want to make memories that they will remember in 20 years, we can’t let them down. That should be the same for any venue.”

Il Forno Liverpool steak
“We’re purely here to make our guests happy. Because they want to make memories that they will remember in 20 years, we can’t let them down. That should be the same for any venue.”
- Paolo Cillo, Il Forno

Lockdown opening

He too couldn’t escape the financial effects of lockdown but the restaurant, a five-minute stroll from Liverpool’s cool Albert Dock, remained open throughout.

“On some days we took only £20 but we were here if our customers needed us and now they are coming back to support us and are determined to appreciate the new freedom even more,” he says.

Paolo used the quiet time to take a fresh look at the restaurant – “we wanted our guests to see we’d been thinking of them when they returned” – and changed things for a positive new start.

“The sense of occasion is important so where people used to go for a drink first and then eat, we’ve changed things so they can spend a whole evening here,” he says.

Fresh new ideas

A new bar and cocktail area, whisky and cigar lounge, dining extension with firepit tables and retractable windows and a colour scheme refresh are all new, along with the (now removed) giant outdoor marquee that helped the team maintain up to 300 covers each day when they could only serve outside.

Paolo also moved the kitchen from the basement to a light, open-plan space on the main floor next to the centrepiece oven – Il Forno in Italian – so customers can see their food being prepared.

The unassuming boss adds: “Re-opening has been a new beginning, only with the same food and the same hospitality. That’s down to having a great team who are brilliant at reading whether it’s a brisk business meeting or a slow, romantic meal.”

The oven at Il Forno in Liverpool

The best ingredients are key

Since arriving in the north-west, Paolo and his family have opened two smaller restaurants: Crust, which sells pizzas, and A Tavola, a wine bar and deli where Paolo sometimes hosts culinary classes.

He also has an import business which is critical to maintaining a steady supply of the best-quality ingredients from suppliers in northern Italy, Sardinia and his hometown, Potenza.

“When you use quality products you don’t need to go crazy. Good cherry or plum tomatoes, the best extra virgin olive oil and aged Parmesan are key – we never try to do something different to what our grandmother or mother taught us. Simple ingredients cooked with passion are enough,” he adds.

His jovial demeanour changes, though, as he talks about the role of accountants in the hospitality business: “They are the biggest disaster. They are just doing their job, but they tell you to buy cheaper tomatoes or Parmesan to increase margins and save money. But if you do, you risk being closed next year.”

Chef putting finishing touches to dish at Liverpool's Il Forno

Service is always first

As he talks, Paolo is frequently interrupted by regular guests, all friends thrilled to see him once more after lockdown. One of them has forgotten to book a table for a landmark family birthday.

Within minutes Paolo has found a space for them: “We always try to help our guests and if we can’t, we try to work with them. Flexibility and being humble is so important in hospitality.

“I always think about what I would want if I was going out for a night with my wife… good food, a warm and friendly meeting place and a great relaxed atmosphere to make me happy. That’s it.”

The team at Liverpool's Il Forno
“We always try to help our guests and if we can’t, we try to work with them. Flexibility and being humble is so important in hospitality.”
- Paolo Cillo, Il Forno

So in lockdown, Operations Manager Cheryl Hepplestone and Head Chef Antonino Di Natale worked with Paolo to flex the vision, design and menus. That, alongside team passion, belief, commitment and tenacity, ensured guests still came first.

Just as it has been for all caterers, the past year has been tough for Paolo, but he is confident that that commitment to his Il Forno and Crust guests – he offered takeaway pizza and popular ‘box at home’ Italian Sunday roasts with rosemary, truffles and garlic accompaniments – will reap rewards in the long term.

Making memories

That commitment to being part of their extended family is what drives the business: “Yes, we have a website and do social media but the one thing that keeps people coming back is word of mouth. That’s why it was so important to keep serving during lockdown so our regular guests remembered us.”

Those loyal advocates, like the man who told Paolo how his late mother used to make him minestrone soup and serve it from the pan, are the restaurant’s most powerful marketing tool.

Paolo says: “There is no such word as ‘no’ here, so I told him it would take an hour to prepare and cook and he said he was happy to wait. When I came out and poured it from the pan, he was lost for words – we had turned his dream into reality.”

Judging by the steady stream of visitors outside, his near mythical, yet simple, skill of making memories shows no sign of abating as we return to normality.

Il Forno Liverpool chocolate dessert
Il Forno Liverpool drink

Paolo's top tips

1 Focus on how you can welcome people and make them feel comfortable, because it’s not just about the food. It’s also about how you make your guests feel at home.
2 Look at how you can get guests to spend the whole night with you instead of going to a bar before or after the meal – we offer a relaxing aperitif at the bar, a meal and then they can go to another area for a whisky or espresso Martini.
3 Offer new deals. At our more casual Bocconcini Bar, you can get three Italian fish, chicken and meat tapas for £20 to complement cocktails or prosecco.
4 Buy the best ingredients you can afford. Good-quality cheese and tomatoes are richer, go further and taste better.
5 If you can’t offer guests their preferred booking time, always give an alternative and try to accommodate them where possible. They’ll remember it.
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