What two generations of Castellucci restaurateurs learned from their dads

The father and son behind Cooks & Soldiers and Iberian Pig talk about the family business and the value of hard work
“This was my grandfather’s restaurant in Rhode Island,” says Federico W. Castellucci III. “He’s the guy behind the counter with the big handlebar mustache that I could never get right for myself. He looked awesome with it.”

Photograph courtesy of Federico W. Castellucci III

The Castellucci family has been in the restaurant business for 100 years now. Federico “Mr. C” Castellucci II, the patriarch of Castellucci Hospitality Group (Cooks & Soldiers, Double Zero, Sugo and the Iberian Pig), descends from an Italian father and a Greek mother whose families both immigrated to America.

The picture above was taken in Rhode Island in 1917. “At the front left corner behind the counter is my grandfather, Achilles Zavolangos,” says Castellucci, of the Greek side of his family. “In the background, the faded silhouette is my great grandmother, Stamatu. She owned a confectionery in Plaka, the old part of Athens, where they made baklava, kourambiethes, and galaktoboureko. When she found out they were coming to this country, she closed up her shop, took those two brass coffee machines you can see in the very back, and helped them open up that restaurant.” The little girl in black dress is Castellucci’s mother, Sophia.

Sophia ultimately met and married Arcito Castellucci, “the good looking guy behind the bar without the tie” in the photo below, and in 1951, they opened a pizzeria in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, called the Italian GI Club.

The Italian GI Club pizzeria, Rhode Island, 1951

Photograph courtesy of Federico W. Castellucci II

Castellucci’s son, Federico W. Castellucci III, puts a copy of these two photos either behind the bar or in the dining room of every new restaurant the family opens. With Father’s Day on our minds, we talked to both men about the family business, hard work, and what they’ve learned from each other.

Federico W. Castellucci III (“Fred”): My grandfather, Arcito, had just come back from [World War II] when he opened the Italian GI Club. My father took over and renamed it Archie’s Tavern. Dad was about to start law school when, one night, he was talking to some ladies at the bar and their boyfriends got jealous. The guys came back later that night and burned down the restaurant. That’s the story I know, anyway. So my dad quit law school and stayed to help the family.

Federico W. Castellucci II (“Mr. C”): I felt I just couldn’t leave. It actually became quite a large business, and I felt it was a great tribute to my father. At the Italian GI Club, the kitchen was downstairs. The server would write down orders by hand, hang it onto a cord with a clothespin, and send it down a chute—a drainpipe from the side of a house that had been torn down—that went down into the kitchen. My father had engineered a dumbwaiter—he was brilliant and could do anything with his hands—so you could prepare the food, put it on the dumbwaiter, close the door, hit a button, and it would gradually travel up to the top. One time, in the middle of a Friday rush, one of the wires in the dumbwaiter broke. It was just demolished, and you could hear all of this noise because it was 25 feet down. I was 15 and I panicked. I said to my father, “My God, what do we do?” He shook his head and—I’ll never forget it—he said, “You take the dishes and you run them up the stairs like we did before we had the dumbwaiter.” He was calm as a cucumber. It was just like, “Redo the dishes and for the rest of the night you’re going to run them up the stairs. You’re going to hand them to Hazel and Gert and Alice, and they’re going to take off with the dishes, then you’re going to come downstairs, those two pizzas are going to come out of the oven, and you’re going to run those up the stairs.” I never forgot that.

Fred: Archie’s Tavern became a very successful business. And my dad grew it to a number of different satellite outlets.

Mr. C: Then in the early ’90s, business became very difficult. There was the credit union crisis in Rhode Island and a water crisis. I was getting wiped out.

Fred: Those were certainly some dark times. We stayed there for a couple years as he was figuring out what to do. We moved into my grandmother’s apartment—three kids, my grandmother, and my parents in a two-bedroom apartment. I saw my dad in this rough depression, trying to keep the family afloat. My mom supported us the whole time doing physical therapy; she had to re-certify and jump back in. But there’s this perseverance and grit to my father, and that has been probably the best learning experience I could have gathered. It wasn’t always pretty, but there was never another option.

Mr. C: I thought If I’m going to start all over again, where is the best place to do that? Rhode Island was a base for manufacturing companies, so if anything affected that local industry, our business was affected by it, too. Little by little, I honed it down to Atlanta.

Fred: He put us in a Volvo station wagon with a dog and a cat and we drove down to Atlanta.

Mr. C: Twice I had to start all over again. Each time I did it, I kept thinking to myself, If my grandfather can come to the States with 11 children and no money, then I can move from Rhode Island to Atlanta with three kids, a cat, a dog, and a wife who thought I was crazy and give it a shot. Right?

Fred: He opened Roasted Garlic in Alpharetta in 1997. He and I were only two kitchen employees at that time. I was around 13.

Mr. C: The restaurant became a big hit. It got very busy, which gave me confidence that people would still like what I could do. I realized the world had been separated very neatly into people who understood computers and people who could make a meatball. So it just become matter of selling enough meatballs to put a roof over my kids’ heads and send them to good schools.

Fred: As soon as Roasted Garlic became somewhat successful, his first purchase was to send us to The Westminster Schools. He would go down to the financial office to make monthly payments to keep us in private school.

Mr. C: Little by little the rest of the kids started to work in the restaurants, and I guess they got an affinity for it. I was kind of surprised, actually, that they saw how difficult it was and still wanted to go into the business. I discouraged it because I knew how bright the kids were. Fred decided that he wanted to go to Cornell and study hospitality and then my daughter decided to go, too.

Federico W. Castellucci II and III at the younger’s wedding

Photograph by MK Sadler

Fred: I graduated in 2007 and took over Sugo in Johns Creek. Dad was just coming off of anther downturn, and I think he was really tired of fighting the fight, so I came in to revamp the business. Then when my sister graduated in 2009, she took over Sugo and I focused on opening new concepts like the Iberian Pig and growing the company. When we sold the original Sugo in Roswell, that was a little emotional for him. The location had gotten to a point where it was becoming a distraction and a drain on our resources. So I basically laid it out, saying “It hasn’t been doing great for a little while now, and it was easy to run when the family was running it, but now that there are multiple restaurants it can’t be so mom and pop anymore.” We sold it in 2013, and he and my mom took over running Sugo in Johns Creek. We launched Double Zero in 2011, which my sister has run ever since, then Cooks & Soldiers in 2014, and we’re opening Bar Mercado soon. The Castellucci Hospitality Group has grown into more of an organization with a corporate structure and an extremely capable management team. Mom and Dad prefer to be at a restaurant day in and day out, making connections with our guests, and Sugo has done phenomenally well. It’s a testament to their skills running a restaurant.

Mr. C: My father used to say, “I’m not smarter than you are, I’ve just made more mistakes than you’ve made.” Maybe [my kids] learned from some of the mistakes I’ve made.

Fred: I remember watching him when I was younger. If someone wasn’t happy, he would grab a bottle of wine from the cooler and put it on their table. He’d say, “Drink it then, or take it home if you want, but let me give you this.” He really knows how to take care of a customer.

Mr. C: I think the kids have learned about hospitality from working in the restaurants. It’s about watching what happens every time someone enters the restaurant, the way they’re greeted. Or maybe when you pull out a chair for a lady or a gentleman, you help them with their coats. I don’t know . . . you probably don’t learn that at Cornell!

Federico W. Castellucci
Fred (left) and Mr. C

Photograph by MK Sadler