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Antonio Cagnolo’s Famed Antonello Ristorante Celebrates 45 Years

The octopus carpaccio might be the star of the menu at Antonello Ristorante, but there’s no doubt who the star of the restaurant is: owner Antonio Cagnolo.

During a recent Friday night meal, the well-wishers come often to a table where Cagnolo sits. They include former LA Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo, First Foundation Bank Chairman Rick Keller, and Toren Segerstrom, whose extended family owns the South Coast Plaza Village shopping center where Antonello is located, along with South Coast Plaza across the street.

Despite the star power, Antonello isn’t the new, hip dining spot in OC to see and be seen.
In fact, it’s the opposite.

Now celebrating its 45th anniversary, Antonello is likely the longest-running upscale restaurant in OC still overseen by its original owner, an institution that’s served generations of locals, business executives, sports stars and celebrities some of the best Italian food in Southern California.

Can the restaurant make it to its 50th anniversary? Does Cagnolo have an exit plan?

His answer counts a simplicity similar to the recipes of some of Antonello’s best-known dishes, family recipes overseen by Cagnolo.

“They’ll have to drag my body out of here,” he quips.

There are only a handful of restaurants in Orange County that have reached icon status, both for their longevity and for their cuisine.

One of those restaurants is Antonello Ristorante.

Cagnolo, who also runs Quattro Caffé at South Coast Plaza, is the Business Journal’s Restaurateur of the Year for 2024.

Segerstrom’s Push

A native of Northwestern Italy, Cagnolo began his career in hospitality after attending hotel and restaurant management schools in Germany.

He was appointed to oversee the food and beverage operations for the Royal Garden Hotel in London, then was part of the management team at the fabled Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo.

Cagnolo also worked at the famed Monte Carlo nightclub, Jimmy’z, a haunt for celebrities ranging from Mick Jagger and Rudolf Nureyev to the Rat Pack.

He moved to California in 1975 and got a job running Alfredo’s, the continental restaurant at the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel, frequented by the late developer Henry Segerstrom, the mastermind behind the country’s largest luxury shopping center in Costa Mesa across the street, as well as its surrounding arts district.

Segerstrom loved the cuisine at Alfredo’s so much that eventually he helped Cagnolo open his own restaurant at a center his family business ran. Antonello Ristorante opened in 1979.

Cagnolo’s goal for the new restaurant hasn’t changed over the years: “I aim to offer patrons an authentic taste of Italy, using fresh ingredients and my own personal touch.”

The ‘In’ Crowd

The restaurant soon became a draw for lovers of fine dining, and with plenty of notable guests.

Luminaries from Magic Johnson to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Madonna have dined there, as have plenty of politicians, CEOs, dignitaries, U.S. presidents and movie stars.

Corporate events and client dinners have taken place in its private dining areas.

Come for dinner, and you are likely to see Cagnolo mingling with guests he’s known for years, alongside a star or two.

Cagnolo relishes the attention because he knows customers have many choices of where to dine and appreciates it when they choose his restaurant.

One of Cagnolo’s secrets to having Antonello last 45 years: “I want to give people what they like, not what I think is good.”

Luckily for Cagnolo, they love his dishes, many of which are family recipes.

His menu features classics that people come to Antonello for, as well as specials that often find their way onto his menu.

“If we take certain things off the menu there is a revolution,” Cagnolo joked.

“After 45 years, we know what people like. A lot of people who make reservations, I know them, and we know what to make for them.”

Busy at SCP

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Cagnolo and Antonello.

When he first opened at South Coast Plaza Village, the center was close to full.

“Then a big company wanted to come in, so they took everyone out, but then the company did not come, so we went from 87 stores to [nearly] no stores,” he said.

The lack of on-site shoppers eliminated a good amount of Antonello’s lunch business, though Cagnolo and his team keeps plenty busy now at lunchtime at Quattro Caffé, which can see upward of 1,000 guests come and go during peak holiday season.

Along with Din Tai Fung, Quattro Caffé is among the busiest restaurants at South Coast Plaza.

Survival Tips

Cagnolo offers a few key longevity tips for other restaurateurs: use only the best ingredients—such as olive oil from Italy—and always keep learning.

“If someone learned from me, I hope they do better,” Cagnolo joked.

“When I travel, I am always looking at things to see what I can do. I go to our chef and say ‘look at this and that.’ I always try to be on top of things.”

Antonello Ristorante: 3800 S. Plaza
Drive, Santa Ana, (714) 751-7153, antonellosrg.com

Kobe’s Pasta

For a recent dinner at Antonello Ristorante, Antonio Cagnolo, and Grande Chef di Cucina, Sal Ferrara, pulled out nearly all the hits.

Business Journal Editor Mark Mueller and I dined on octopus carpaccio (one of Antonello’s most popular dishes) and salmon carpaccio, smoked swordfish, shrimp scampi and minestrone.

We also sampled several pastas, including pappardelle with short ribs, which Cagnolo dubbed the Kobe Bryant special.

“Kobe always had that dish,” Cagnolo stated. “He was here at least once a week with his family.”

Quattro’s Crowds

Quattro Caffé, which Antonio Cagnolo opened with Georgio Armani in 1991, was initially known as Armani Caffé. Cagnolo eventually, took over the restaurant, and officially reopened it under its current name.

The opening was a rocky one, taking place on Sept. 11, 2001. The mall closed temporarily.
After that less-than-auspicious beginning, Quattro became a haven for South Coast Plaza shoppers looking for a lunch or dinner. Quattro bills itself as having an ambiance of “uncomplicated elegance,” which certainly suits the restaurant that serves Northern Italian dishes prepared for California palates.

Quattro lists nine different pizzas on its lengthy menu, all cooked in an authentic Italian pizza oven.

Other menu items include more than a dozen salads, a half-dozen paninis and nine entrées, and nearly 20 different pasta dishes.

After sampling several pizzas and pasta dishes, plus desserts, it is clear that Cagnolo takes pride in his cuisine, his staff, his restaurants, and above all his loyal clientele, without whom Cagnolo would have been one of the restaurant statistics that never made it past the first year.

The restaurant’s management includes General Manager Domenico Grillo and Chef Miriam Ramirez.

Giving Back

Antonio Cagnolo spends countless hours in his restaurants, but he is also dedicated to charitable causes.

He has provided resources and financial backing to assist with fundraising efforts for a variety of nonprofits, including Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Second Harvest Food Bank, Marconi Foundation for Kids, CHOC, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which has named him “Man of the Year.”

In 2022, Cagnolo was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic—also known as the Cavaliere Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana—at the Consulate General of Italy in Los Angeles.

The honor is bestowed by decree of the President of the Italian Republic on the recommendation of the prime minister. It is awarded for “merit acquired by the nation” in the fields of the arts, economy, public service, military, social, philanthropic and humanitarian activities.

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