|Palio Ristorante does a brink business in the evenings, having been adopted as a popular meet-up location by Leesburg residents. Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny.|
On a Saturday night at Palio Ristorante, the walls are filled with a classy ambience and the jazzy sounds from a piano trio. The enticing aroma of black truffle and smoked ham pasta contributes to that relaxing atmosphere guests crave on a weekend night.
Owner Mike O’Connor has much to be proud of. With the completion of Palio’s build-out – including an additional bar, dining areas and kitchen space – the already aesthetically impressive restaurant has established itself as a landmark in historic Leesburg.
In the past seven months, Palio has also made breakthroughs on OpenTable.com, with an increase in ratings from 2.4 to 4.3 out of 5 stars in less than seven months.
What’s the change? A new manager, new chef and a fresh philosophy are bringing together a staff that is educated, experienced and passionate. It’s a team that is proud of what Palio offers to the community.
“I think our efforts as they originated to really change Leesburg, I think we’ve played a small part,” O’Connor says. “We’re very happy.”
O’Connor has spent a lot of time and effort, love, and years building Palio to what it is today … it’s all been worthwhile, he says.
“We’re looking for great things from the town of Leesburg,” O’Connor says.
Palio’s general manager, tall, friendly but tough, David Saavedra, came on the scene this past March. Originally from Peru, Saavedra is an engineer by trade, but his true passion is the restaurant business. A job as a server while he was completing his MBA wooed him into the industry.
Recently recognized by DC Capitol Magazine as the Best Sommelier and Mixologist of 2013, he says his business education has helped him with restaurant management.
“I loved it and I still love it,” Saavedra says. “On the operations side, I’ve been able to apply it [MBA] a lot, I think it helped me a lot.”
With the goal of changing the face of Palio’s, Saavedra made several major changes including the hiring of a new chef, Milan-born Antonio Iazzetti, formerly of il Fornaio in Reston. Saavedra also brought in team members he has worked with for the last eight to 10 years.
“The staff comes from the best restaurants in DC … 2941, Kincaid’s, Palm, Chez Francois,” he says. “We constantly train everyone, every other Saturday they come for food and wine classes. If you don’t know your product, how are you going to sell it?”
It is apparent that Saavedra and Chef Iazzetti work well together, collaborating on an eclectic menu influenced by northern and central Italian cuisine. Iazzetti describes how much he enjoys experimenting new dishes. O’Connor talks about an incredible lobster dish they enjoyed the night before, and on Saturday it was all about black truffle Iazzetti got to play with.
“I made a truffle dish, it involved a little bit of vodka, and everyone ordered the damn thing tonight,” Iazzetti says lightheartedly. “So I hit the right thing, now I have a person a little bit upset because I ran out of the special.”
It’s a good problem to have. Iazzetti makes fresh pasta and bread on site every day, incorporates local meats and vegetables (including a selection from owner O’Connor’s farm) onto the menu, and collaborates with Saavedra on ideas as well as wine and drink pairings.
“What I love about David is I can create things and he follows me,” Iazzetti says. “I am extremely pleased that I work with this gentleman. He has the guts to come up to me and tell me ‘chef, not like that,’ and we can sit down and fix the things and come up with something better.”
Working together 10 to 12 hours a day, Iazzetti describes their relationship like a husband and wife team, ironing out the wrinkles with honest communication and productive brainstorming.
“I think we can make this place the best restaurant in Loudoun County,” Saavedra says confidently.
After several years at award-winning restaurants 2941 in Falls Church and Goodstone Inn & Restaurant in Middleburg, Saavedra believes it takes a great team to create that excellent restaurant experience.
“I believe in this philosophy: knowledge, confidence, relationships,” Saavedra says. “The knowledge is going to give you confidence and that confidence is going to create relationships with your guests.”
Rebekah Pizana has been a freelance food and travel writer for almost eight years. When not baking or sipping wine, she enjoys exploring Loudoun.
|Located at 2 W. Market St. in Leesburg, Palio Ristorante was named the Palio di Siena horse race. The restaurant's cuisine is heavily influenced by northern and central Italian cuisine. Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny.|