De La Torre’s diners saying “Bravo!” for 25 years
By Lou Fancher
If 25 years operating a brick-and-mortar, family-owned restaurant has taught Leigh De La Torre anything, it’s to be nimble.
“You can’t let your ego get the best of you,” says the 52-year-old restaurateur, whose De La Torre’s trattoria marks its silver anniversary in February. “You have to stay current.”
The cozy, 75-seat restaurant specializes in Northern Italian cuisine, with standard dishes combining Italian olive oil and house-made sauces with tortelloni, gnocchi, ravioli and risotto and an array of appetizers, salads and hand-tossed pizzas. But it’s the daily specials — often featuring lamb shanks, duck, raised-in-the-wild-only seafood and seasonal vegetables — that De La Torre says distinguish her restaurant and were her late husband’s specialty. Tom De La Torre died in 2013.
“We both worked for the big corporate giants in the hotel industry. He and I always wanted to have our own restaurant. He was a chef and could cook anything; I knew the hiring, training and how to control the front-of-house,” she says, recalling the decision to open their restaurant. “Pleasanton was the most cost-effective location.”
But for all the knowledge that years in the business have confirmed for De La Torre that consistency is essential, she says the current culinary climate also demands increasing flexibility.
“You have to stay up on trends, but you also have to keep your core,” she says.
At home, her husband did all the cooking, and the couple dined out often, visiting Napa and San Francisco restaurants to study food and wine offerings.
“We hold onto authenticity too,” she says. “In our restaurant, we get a lot of the ingredients from Italy. One of the hardest things is when a review says our sauces are canned. Nothing comes out of the can for us. We chop our own lettuce, make our own dressings and croutons.”
De La Torre says Italians don’t sit down and eat a big bowl of pasta as a meal.
“That’s just a starter course that leads into a protein dish. Pizzas are served lighter there, but Americans like everything on it. Our margherita pizza we try to keep lighter, thinner crust, closer to how it truly is, but you have to know your customer. They made the choice to come and have dinner with you, so we need to be appreciative of that.”
De La Torre thought of expanding when the restaurant was remodeled seven years ago, but chose not to, citing “keeping egos in check” and “the bottom line” as the reasons. “Yes, it can get a little tight in here. I don’t believe in having people on top of each other and so we try to accommodate by taking reservations and keeping the flow going.”
But with rising rents and wages making a restaurant’s already slim margins constantly slimmer, a small footprint is actually a wise business maneuver. As is planning for cessation and delegation.
“With long-term employees, like my chef, Daniel Flores, who worked with my husband for 14 years, you have longevity. Three years after my husband died, we’re going strong.”
And educating staff who make decisions is vital for when De La Torre is at her full-time day job at Contemporary Forums as a director of conference logistics for major medical conferences.
Because the demographics of Pleasanton have expanded since the restaurant opened 25 years ago, educating the staff to accommodate customers’ preferences — gluten-free and vegetarian options, family-style dining and other variations — requires ongoing flexibility.
“The people who come here know good food. At first, it was primarily white people; now there are Asian, Indian and other races and cultures. Pleasanton has evolved, and we’re changing with it.”
Customers’ interest in wine pairing means De La Torre keeps a careful eye on the list that features varietals found at small family wineries in Italy and California.
“We try to have a mix of old world and new world. Wines that go well with food are acid-based, so we’ll not have the buttery chardonnay that’s good for a cocktail party. We buy direct from small wineries so most of the wine list is only things you can get here or at the wineries. It’s not off the shelf.”
It all adds up to a high-wire act with rewards that, according to De La Torre, bring her back to her childhood. In a family with two parents and six children, she says the food wasn’t fancy or connected to ego or celebrity chef-hood. Instead, dining was all about “everyone every night getting together.”