Who is Augusto Conte? one of Charlotte’s most prolific restaurant owners flies below the radar.
by Kathleen Purvis | photographs by Peter Taylor
You’d think Augusto Conte would be a household name in Charlotte’s food world.
He owns four restaurants that are consistently successful — Luce in uptown, Mezzanotte in Cotswold, Via Roma at Waverly and the flagship, Toscana, in SouthPark. Since coming to Charlotte in 1995, he’s had 11 restaurants — the current four, plus his first, Conte’s Ristorante Italiano, followed by Trattoria Antica, Trattoria Rustica, Coco Osteria, Malabar (Spanish tapas, his one attempt that wasn’t Italian), Il Posto and Positano. Most of his openings and closings haven’t been for lack of business. Changes in leases closed some, like Malabar. The chance to grab better spaces caused others.
Still, when Charlotte food lovers list the biggest names in the restaurant world, why doesn’t anyone mention Conte, the most Italian man in an Italian-crazy city?
Conte just shrugs at the question. That’s the way it should be, he says. At 55, he’s happy to stay out of the spotlight, concentrate on what he does best, and let the attention go to the younger chefs and the newer spots.
“The new ones need to get attention,” he says. “The difference between us and someone new, we’re in a different position. It takes years to serve the community and form a brand. This is what makes me different. We’ve seen a lot of big names (in Charlotte). They came, and they left.”
Helen Schwab, whose years as the restaurant reviewer at The Charlotte Observer overlapped with most of Conte’s places, agrees that he’s never received as much attention as he deserves.
“Toscana’s story, I think, tells you why he hasn’t gotten more attention: He opened a good place in an underrepresented-in-terms-of-quality cuisine, and he took care to keep it good, and keep it steady, and that kept it open,” Schwab says. “That doesn’t make a lot of headlines, it just makes money.”
When it comes to experience, it’s hard to top Conte. He’s been around food and hospitality since he was growing up on the island of Ischia, near Capri. Conte was actually born in Germany, when his parents moved there briefly. After they moved back to Ischia with their five sons, Conte’s father left the family. His mother had to work two jobs to support them. To keep her sons off the streets when she couldn’t be there, she sent them to work. Conte was 11 when he started work as a hotel bellboy.
The Contes didn’t have much money, but he has plenty of good food memories: fresh seafood, fresh tomatoes, eggplant and rabbit on Sundays.
He came to America in 1988, when he was 20, and started in New York.
“I came with luggage full of dreams,” Conte says today — his way of saying he didn’t have anything else. He couldn’t speak English, but he knew hospitality, and he knew how to work hard. He became a busser at a restaurant, living with a family in Connecticut and working on his language skills. When he was ready to move up to waiter, he had to push to get the chance: He was too good at being a busser.
In 1994, six years after coming to America, Conte and his first wife, Christine, came to Charlotte to visit her sister. He saw a fast-growing city that had potential — and it was missing real Italian food.
“I felt some restaurants were Italian by name,” he says. “It was missing the real flavor.” So the Contes moved to Charlotte, opening Conte’s Ristorante Italiano in Myers Park.
“When he opened Conte’s, Charlotte had not had a lot,” Schwab recalls. “That year, I was still explaining in reviews what bruschetta and caprese salads and risotto were.”
Conte’s quickly attracted fans, and before long, Conte wanted a bigger space. At Specialty Shops on the Park (now Specialty Shops SouthPark), the European-style courtyard next to SouthPark Mall, he had spotted Café Milan and was impressed with the setting. It was big, with room to grow, and had space for outdoor dining.
In 1998, he got a call from real estate developer Smoky Bissell, a regular at Conte’s. Bissell had gotten word that the Café Milan space was going to be available, and he wanted Conte to be the first to know.
“I said, ‘done!’” Conte grabbed a piece of paper and sketched out a menu that become Toscana.
That menu, with a few variations, is still in most of his restaurants today. He estimates that 70% of the menus are the same at all his restaurants. They change with the seasons, but not by much. Dishes like rigatoni buttera, with a creamy tomato sauce, are on all four of his menus. Why change what works?
“This is why people come,” he says. “I’m not officially a chef. I develop the menu, the flavor, as if it would be my house. This is how we eat at my house.”
He visits all four of his restaurants several times a week, and usually hits all four of them on Saturday nights.
“I walk through the dining room, I show my face, I listen to everyone. I build the culture.”
He always spends time in the kitchens. In a business that’s known for its turnover and struggles to keep staff during the pandemic, he’s got staff members who have stayed for 15 years. Incentives like profit-sharing have helped him keep staff.
“Everybody’s happy,” he says. “I shake their hands – ‘are you happy?’ They’re like family. We share the same values.”
He starts his days late, usually visiting his restaurants from 4 p.m. until late at night. That’s deliberate: Growing up without a father, being with his family is important to him. He likes to be home to cook breakfast and lunch. Conte has five children — Ariana, Sophia, Gianluca and Angelina from his first marriage, and Sophia, 5, with his wife Mariajose, a native of Ecuador.
Gianluca Conte has found his own success as a social influencer who’s known for his parody cooking videos, The Angry New Jersey Cooking Show, on TikTok and YouTube. Despite controversy about racial stereotypes (he later posted an apology), Gianluca has racked up 11 million followers for his goofy cooking that usually involves painfully “Sopranos”-style accents and maximum views of his well-developed chest under an apron. (He’s @itsqcp on TikTok.)
Conte gets a kick out Gianluca’s videos — he shares recipes and techniques, and marvels that Gianluca got paid $7,000 by one company just to cook a steak. He even makes an appearance in one, shot in July on a father-son trip to Italy, that includes both Contes running out of the sea in very tiny Speedos.
The son is really imitating the father: It’s all about building a brand.
“The longevity of what he’s done, on the level he’s done it, is remarkable,” Schwab says.
Hospitality, Conte says, is something you have or you don’t.
“It comes from who you are. Hospitality is Italian. Brand is who you are.” SP