January 2001

Ivano Toscani


by Vince EVANS

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His hands tell the story. His hands have served him well. From a young apprentice printer in Italy to a seasoned manager of an internationally known restaurant in Buffalo, New York, Ivano Toscani will tell you how much he enjoys working with his hands. But unlike the renowned Anchor Bar Restaurant he manages and the Bellissimo family that gave first flight to the historic wings, not much is known of him. And that’s the way he likes it. He takes little credit, deferring most honors to the late Frank and Teresa Bellissimo, their son, Dominic, and his wife, Edith. However, on a wing sauce scale of mild to super hot, it could be argued that his life has progressed in much the same way.

As a young boy growing up in Milan, Italy, Ivano often visited the printing shop next door to where he lived. He was fascinated by how the men worked with the machinery and used their hands to create the end products. So taken was he by this process that, years later, he enrolled to study printing at the Rissoli Printing School in Milan. He studied during the day and worked at night. At age 19 he completed his study and became a printer, but his country’s obligatory military duty summoned him shortly thereafter, and he was inducted into the Italian Army in Palermo, 1500 miles from Milan.

After 3 months in Palermo, he was assigned to Verona near an American base. Ivano, a self-described rebel, often objected to what he was told to do by superiors, and as a result, often found himself incarcerated. He fancied motorcycles and brought one with him to Verona to escape military life and “be free for awhile.” He convinced a woman living near the base to keep his motorcycle in her yard; he would dash to her home, change into civilian clothes, and ride like the wind. But his short haircut betrayed his civilian look, and Army officials caught up with him. As a result of this, too, he often found himself incarcerated. He spent 18 months in the Italian Army - how much of that time was spent behind bars is still in dispute.

In Milan after discharge, he returned to his job as a printer and his passion for motorcycles. Ivano and several of his cycle friends decided, one day, to take a vacation to Yugoslavia to the beautiful island of Vely Losyn. There, he met a girl from the United States and their time together was like a motorcycle ride - fast, exciting and memorable.

In the ensuing 2 years, they wrote each other often. They met again on the island and this time Ivano was convinced that he was in love. After she returned to America, he decided that he wanted to visit her in her country and he informed his mother and his boss at the print shop that he would be going to see the girl for several weeks. The girl, Annamaria, was from Buffalo, New York.

In 1973, knowing only a few words in English, Ivano met Annamaria at JFK airport in New York City, then drove upstate to see her hometown of Buffalo. Annamaria spoke Italian and introduced Ivano to the people and culture that was Western New York. He knew he was in love with Annamaria, but he soon discovered he was also in love with the region. He was impressed by how ‘calm’ the city and surrounding area seemed to be and this had a profound effect on him - so much so that he wanted to stay here. Annamaria told him the only way he could do so legally would be to marry. They did in 1974.

As they began their new life together, Annamaria worked as a secretary at Roswell Park Cancer Institute while Ivano worked at a West Side printing company by day and attended English classes by night at the International Institute. An official at the Institute was a friend of Frank Bellissimo, owner of the Anchor Bar. Frank had asked his friend if he knew someone who could help him maintain his Italian language skills. The friend brokered a meeting between Frank Bellissimo and the 23 year old Ivano. When Ivano entered the restaurant, he asked the bartender if Mr. Bellissimo was available; the bartender (“Mr. Personality” Ivano sarcastically labeled him) gruffly answered “No.” Ivano left. Later that night, his wife told him to go back to the restaurant and not to leave until he met the owner. The next day he went back and, this time, introduced himself to Mr. Bellissimo. In exchange for the language help, Frank Bellissimo asked Ivano if he wanted to learn the restaurant business. With a simple “yes”, Ivano was given an apron, and an opportunity of a lifetime.

Ivano worked hard at his new career, seven days a week, and learned everything he could from his mentor. Frank Bellissimo, a very astute man, told the young Ivano to follow him around, listen to how he interacted with customers, watch as he prepared foods and sauces. In their third-floor apartment above the restaurant, the Bellissimos taught Ivano menu planning and other fine points of the business. He and Frank stood shoulder to shoulder, cutting meat, wings, sausages, potatoes, as everything was handmade at the restaurant. Ivano’s work ethic earned him a place close to the hearts of the Bellissimo family. So happy was Ivano that he began to bring his dog to the restaurant to the delight of both the family and the patrons. His cooking improved as did his English, but when Frank Bellissimo died in 1980, Ivano was devastated. Teresa Bellissimo and son, Dominic, told Ivano that he was part of their family and wanted him to remain with the restaurant. Ivano stayed on the only way he knew how - working hard and carrying on the traditions of good food and exceptional customer service as established by his idol. Even after Teresa Bellissimo’s death in 1984 and Dominic’s in 1991, Ivano, by request of Dominic’s wife Edith, agreed to keep the business going, having been told that the Anchor Bar would not be what it is without him. Ivano remains loyal to Edith Bellissimo, grateful for her trust and confidence in his stewardship.

These days you can still find Ivano Toscani, and his new dog, working at the restaurant, seven days a week. He takes a few hours for himself most afternoons to pump iron at the gym and tend to his personal side, which includes membership in the Knights of Columbus on Delaware Avenue where he is a 3rd degree Knight. Though he and Annamaria divorced in 1990, they remain friends.

Frank Bellissimo’s vision for the restaurant included continuous attention to improvements for the customer; he wanted the business to always be better for his customers, whom he remembered by name. To that end, Ivano instituted several initiatives, including packaging frozen wings and sauce, now distributed worldwide. It’s not uncommon for wings to be flown to North Africa, England, and Japan to satisfy the desires of customers, new and old. Ivano designed the plans for the remodeling of the restaurant to such detail so as to preserve the character and integrity of the popular landmark. He expanded the bar space, added a new seating area, paved the parking lot and added new lighting, and even installed an ATM machine. He not only designed these new features, he hung the new wallpaper, worked with the masons in building walls, and had a hands-on approach in every improvement project. With a smile and apologies to the ‘Golden Arches’, Ivano’s new sign in the parking lot reads: “Over 246.8 million sold.”

The motorcyclist from Milan, who loves working with his hands, has steered his business and his life down a road that, he says, “Frank Bellissimo would be proud.” And in the restaurant and around the bar, Ivano Toscani continues the traditions he inherited and cherishes: good food and close attention to customers’ needs. He’s learned a special touch.



Vince Evans is a freelance writer.

 

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