On the Line: Miriam Ramirez And Domenico Grillo Of Quattro Q4 Caffé

An establishment that’s outlasted a number of its dining counterparts, Quattro Q4 Caffé is one bustling eatery inside South Coast Plaza. With a kitchen and dining room staff that works together like a well-oiled machine, I wanted to learn more about both sides. So this week’s interview is two-fold: Miriam Ramirez leads the back of the house, while Domenico Grillo keeps things running up front.

What do you think makes Quattro so popular?
Domenico Grillo: It’s the personal touch; the restaurant resonates with a lot of heart and hospitality. Guests feel like they’ve been to Italy. The contemporary design, by Giorgio Armani himself, is timeless even after 25 years. And Miriam’s light and fresh food is made from the best ingredients.

Miriam: Most important quality you look for in a sous chef?
Miriam Ramirez: Food safety and the highest of standards in cleanliness is very important with me. Also excellent communication— someone in sync with thinking the same way about food.

One food you can’t live without:
M.R.: Ceviche; I love mariscos, with whitefish, chile and avocado.
D.G.: Some light charcuterie with Italian salamis and cheeses. Also, fresh fruit.

Where did you grow up, and where do you call home today?
M.R.: Nayarit, a small state in western Mexico; Santa Ana.
D.G.: Calabria and Piedmont; Mission Viejo.

One stereotype about your industry, and whether it’s true.
D.G.: That if you’re busy you’re making lots of money. It’s a good start, but the costs are huge in this business, and margins are thin.

What are your best-sellers?
Both: The off-the-menu spaghetti con frutti di mare— it comes loaded with giant Mexican prawns, shell and fin fish in a light marinara; it sells like crazy. Also, our chopped insalata mista— that has been on the menu since the Armani days.

Help us understand the name of the restaurant, as well as the concept.
Antonio Cagnolo (restaurant owner): When I was asked to take over Armani Caffé, I had three restaurants at South Coast Plaza: Antonello at the Village, Antonello Espresso Bar at South Coast Plaza and Nello Cucina at what was then called Crystal Court across the street. So this was my fourth restaurant, and I decided to call it “Quattro” Caffé. An Italian friend in Vancouver had a restaurant with the same name, and he blessed my using it as well.

My goal was to recreate the sense of international community with people from all over that you find gathering in a cafe in Rome. You hear all sorts of languages— they come together to eat pasta and pizza. And we’ve been very successful with that here.

Favorite meal growing up:
M.R.: My mom’s chilaquiles with green salsa and fried eggs.
D.G.: Homemade pizza every Saturday afternoon— it was the only  time we were allowed to watch cartoons on TV.

Most undervalued ingredient:
M.R.: Fresh herbs; parsley, basil, mint— they add so much freshness to food.
D.G.: A really good, unfiltered olive oil adds flavor to everything.

Do you ever collaborate on specials or new menu items? Could you give me an example?
Both: All the time. We’ve done a few things recently— giving them Italian twists that have been big hits with the guests.

  • Hamburger Q4 – The best ground beef, stuffed with portabella, caramelized onions and guest’s choice of cheese (brie, gorgonzola, burrata) with pesto may that we serve with truffle fries.
  • Marco Polo – Our take on a Chinese chicken salad, served with “Italianese” dressing.
  • Fettuccine Alfredo, Cajun style

Miriam: I heard that you were here since it was Armani Caffe. How does Quattro differ from Armani? 
Armani Caffe was more formal, more corporate in its own way. But it had very high standards for all its food and ingredients, which is something we have maintained.

Best culinary tip for the home cook:
D.G.: Keep it simple, cook what reflects your style, and no dish should take more than 10 minutes. Complicated dishes with sub-recipes are for professional kitchens.

You’re making breakfast. What are you having?
M.R.: My family likes to eat healthy. Scrambled egg whites, whole wheat toast.
D.G.: Egg white omelet with spinach; roasted potatoes with rosemary and bacon, to make up for the fat missing from the eggs.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
M.R.: I’m a big soccer fan; Chivas (from Guadalajara) is my team.
D.G.: I modeled years ago; was signed by Nina Blanchard Agency in L.A., which was later acquired by Eileen Ford from NYC.

Domenico: Let’s talk about the singing. Are you self-taught? When did it start up in the restaurant?
Completely self-taught. I loved Elvis as a kid, and then fell into the classics of Sinatra, Dean Martin, etc. I have sung at every restaurant where I’ve worked, including my own.

Tell us about Latin night and the cooking classes. 
D.G.: Our monthly Latin night (usually the last Saturday in the month) and cooking demo and dinner (first Monday of the month) are two things I enjoy immensely, as do our guests. The Latin night is 8 p.m. – 1 a.m.. It gets packed. We have live music, our regular menu and some Latin food favorites as well. People let their hair down and have a great time. The cooking class is fun— I cook in front of guests, and then they enjoy each course. $38 per person and it includes wine.

Favorite places to eat (besides Quattro).
M.R.; Mariscos Los Corales in Santa Ana.
D.G.: Ciao Pasta in SJC— the owner is a friend.

You have a day to yourself; what are you doing?
M.R.: The usual, cleaning the house and errands.
D.G.: Soccer and I usually come by work ; I am addicted to this place!

Miriam: I heard you work alongside family. Who else works here?
My sister is our pastry chef. My sister-in-law is one of my sous chefs. And my husband waits tables some evenings.

Hardest lesson you’ve learned:
D.G.: I grew up in five different foster families. Be positive and never forget where you came from.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?
M.R.: It’s funny. For some reason I excelled at typing right out of the gate; everyone was astonished at how good I was, compared to others who had been doing it for years.
D.G.: Getting my first pair of soccer shoes.

What profession would you like to try if you weren’t in this business?
M.R.: I would have loved to be a physician specializing in family medicine.
D.G.: An actor.

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