A Chat with Antonio Sessa
This month we called up Antonio Sessa, the Executive Chef and Owner of Made in Italy, a quick-service, deli & bistro based in Westlake Village, CA.
Having survived a challenging 12-months of pandemic restrictions, Antonio and his girlfriend Giana Barone, Head Chef and Partner at Made in Italy have just celebrated their location’s two-year anniversary.
We chatted with Antonio about his journey from Italy to the US, the inspiration behind Made in Italy, and the ups and downs of the last year.
How did you start out in the restaurant business?
Well, growing up in Italy, south of the Amalfi Coast, I was surrounded by good food from a young age.
My mother and grandmother were always in the kitchen and I remember watching and cooking with them. My uncle owned a small bakery and I loved to go there and to work with the dough.
It was normal for me to be surrounded by great food!
Eventually, I went to culinary school in Salerno and from there moved to Florence. I worked in Florence in various restaurants and trattorias for about 10 years. I worked as a busboy, in the kitchen, as a waiter: I did it all.
At one point I asked the owner of the trattoria I was working at if I could spend more time in the kitchen to learn to cook Florentine cuisine. The owner made me start out with cleaning...but I seized the opportunity and gained more responsibility and more knowledge. I spent a lot of time learning, both at work and during my free time; I was always cooking.
That has really been what drivers me: learning more about food. Even when I arrived in the US, I would return to Italy every summer and work (for free!) at different pizzerias and bakers to learn new techniques.
Speaking of your journey to the US, how was your arrival in this country?
I always had the dream to come to America. Originally, I came here to learn English and explore California. While I was studying at an english school here, I worked in restaurants, mostly as a server. It was super important for me. Firstly, I learned the language, but I also learned more about customers here. I saw how they acted, what they needed, and what experience they wanted when dining out.
Once I was more settled, I started working as a private chef. It was definitely a Hollywood experience. I cooked for Ryan Seacrest, Andrea Bocelli, Jennifer Lopez, and more. I can’t lie: it was sort of a dream come true. But now that I have my own place, I don’t do that as much.
What is the story behind Made in Italy?
So, the concept was years in the making. I had a connection who eventually became my business partner and when it came time for me to decide whether to stay in the US or return to Italy, he really supported me. We talked about my ideas and he said I had potential. I decided to stay here and pursue this dream.
It took a few years to get it off the ground. I put a lot of effort into communicating and educating. I want to show people what authentic Italian food is for me. I wanted to make a place that felt like home, like Italy. These are dishes I grew up with so it was important to share my passion so that customers would appreciate true Italian food even if it wasn’t familiar to them. It took a lot of work (and courage!) to open. Lucky for me, I had a lot of support from my girlfriend and partner, Giana. Made in Italy certainly wouldn’t be what it is today without her help.
You make pizza by the meter (pizza romana) using the Gi.Metal sheet peel. Is it popular with your customers?
Whenever American’s come back from visiting Italy they always say the same thing: we had the most amazing food! Pizza romana is so common in Italy. You find it everywhere and I of course grew up eating it. I wanted to bring it here! People are always so impressed when they see a three foot pizza coming out of the oven. It’s a big crowd pleaser.
I also have an amazing oven that I wanted to use to its fullest potential. Speaking of which, when I first started I had such a tough time finding quality pizza peels for pizza by the meter. I was actually having wooden ones made by hand. They were so heavy, but I couldn’t find a better one. Then I found Gi.Metal started selling online and it was amazing. I started using them and haven’t looked back.
Life—and business—have ups and downs. Can you share one peak moment and one challenging moment that stands out to you, looking back at your life and career in the world of pizza?
Owning a restaurant is completely different than simply working in one. I had a lot of new challenges in year 1 of owning my own place, and even more challenges during the pandemic. The last year has certainly been tough. However, it is probably also what I am most proud of. I was able to keep my best people working, make sure everyone stayed safe, and never lost money. It took a lot of work and creativity but we did it, together, as a team.
What is next for you?
I am always looking to improve and learn. It has been an intense year so I am focused on the present right now, but who knows what the future holds! I just love bringing authentic Italian food to people. Maybe I will open a second location in the future; the sky's the limit! All I know for sure is I will keep learning, growing, and sharing my passion for great food.