Why Port Solent favourite '˜Gianni' has been so happy to serve for 28 years

WHEN he first arrived on British soil from his native Calabria, he couldn't speak a word of English.

Promoted by Port Solent
Thursday, 26th July 2018, 4:01 pm
O Sole Mio owner Giovanni Vaccaro. Picture: Sarah Standing

But after climbing the culinary ladder from pizza chef to restaurant owner, Italian Giovanni Vaccaro wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

His pride and joy, O Sole Mio, enjoys an enviable location overlooking the boats at Port Solent marina.

The 53-year-old lives in an apartment at the marina, but says you can never be too close to work when you love your job.

Giovanni Vaccaro, aged 19. Picture: Sarah Standing

As the marina prepares to celebrate its 30th birthday with a big 80s party tomorrow, Giovanni has been there for 28 of those years.

He recalls: '˜When I left Italy in 1983 I didn't speak a single word of English, but I got a job selling cars in Liphook.

'˜I knew it was not what I wanted to be doing though.'

He adds: '˜I would take the cars down to Commercial Road in Portsmouth for the auctions and one day I went into the restaurant there, called The Italian Job.

O Sole Mio staff (from left), Dorina Fortuna, Vivien Toror and Driton Bytyqi. Picture: Sarah Standing

'˜The man who ran it, Gabriele Fella, noticed I was Italian, asked me what I was doing over here and told me he was opening up a restaurant at Port Solent. That's where it all began.'

When he first saw the site of Sorrento, which was just bricks at the time, Giovanni says he was immediately taken by the '˜incredible' view.

Beginning as a pizza chef, the notion of owning his own restaurant '“ let alone one on exactly the same plot of land '“ was merely a dream.

'˜When we got there, we were the only Italian restaurant,' Giovanni says.

'˜Today there must be six or seven. The upstairs was an a la carte restaurant and downstairs was for pizza and pasta - it was so busy.

'˜Queues would still be lining up outside at 11pm and we would often stay open until 2am or 3am because of how many people we were serving.'

When Gabriele sold up, he entrusted Giovanni to lead a new venture in Cowplain, called O Sole Mio (the title of a well-known Neapolitan song). Then he opened the Port Solent restaurant of the same name in 2009.

Giovanni is a big believer in hard graft, something that he learned at an early age.

He recalls: '˜When I was 12 I went to work in a hotel in Italy with my brother. My parents made me choose between work or school '“ and I hated school.

'˜I lived at that hotel and I would send my earnings back to my mum and dad. I did the same when I worked during national service as a chef in the Italian army, which was when I decided I wanted food to be my life.'

He adds: '˜When all my colleagues would be out partying, I'd be in my room thinking of other ways to make money. I even made and sold pens.

'˜That work ethic was just what my parents taught me, they never forced me to send them money.'

Though his mother and father have never moved away from Italy, Giovanni has brought some of his family with him - as well as starting a new one.

His older brother Emilio helps out at O Sole Mio, and his two sons, Franco and Giancarlo, work the kitchen and front of house.

His staff are also Italian '“ some from Calabria '“ and he believes that is a big part of his success.

'˜We are lucky enough to have a brilliant reputation here and I owe our customers massive thanks for that. But behind the reputation is my team, and they are the best thing that has ever happened to me.

'˜Sometimes when customers come in, they don't even look at the menu because they know they can trust to ask us '˜'what shall we eat tonight?'' That is very special.'

After 28 years at Port Solent, Giovanni is looking forward to the future and hopes to keep the restaurant that has been his life in the family.

He says: '˜I always wanted a girl and now I have one who is 19 months old '“ and one day I'd love to see her here doing what our family does so well now.'