Ahmass Fakahany and Michael White are unlikely business partners. Both men had successful independent careers before joining forces to launch Altamarea Group in 2007. Fakahany was the president and COO of Merrill Lynch & Co., responsible for thousands of employees around the globe, and White was a Michelin-starred chef with acclaimed eateries in Chicago and New York City. The two met in 2003 and vowed to work together one day. Four years later, White and Fakahany debuted a modern Italian restaurant in northern New Jersey, and they’ve been thriving as a team ever since.
Based in New York City, Altamarea Group now operates 16 venues, with locations in Manhattan; Bedford, New York; New Brunswick and Bernardsville, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; London; Hong Kong and Istanbul. This year, the company plans to debut a concept in Los Angeles, as well as unveil two additional New York City units. The restaurants emphasize Italian fare, though the portfolio also includes an American eatery, a classic cocktail bar and a steak house. Many of the group’s venues are upscale, and wine is a key component of the drinks programs. Having spent their first few years together persevering through tough financial times, Fakahany and White are now reaping the benefits of their passion.
“We work in a very competitive landscape, so we focus on concepts that have longevity,” Fakahany says, pointing to restaurants like Marea, which serves coastal Italian cuisine, and Osteria Morini, a rustic venue with roots in Northern Italy. Opened in Midtown Manhattan in 2009, Marea marks an important crossroads for the company. “With Marea, we made a bet that New Yorkers wanted to enjoy quality food in understated elegance during a difficult market period, and they came through,” Fakahany explains. “We had no preconceived intent to grow from there. But Marea taught us about what clients want—and we replicated those lessons in different brands.”
Altamarea’s first venue, Due Terre in Bernardsville, New Jersey, launched in 2007 with a modern Italian menu, followed in 2008 by the Italian seafood house Due Mari in New Brunswick, New Jersey. After closing in 2012, Due Terre transformed into Osteria Morini, which highlights cuisine from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. The company’s other concepts include Ai Fiori, a high-end restaurant emphasizing the Italian and French Riviera; Nicoletta, a casual pizzeria; Costata, an Italian steak house; Ristorante Morini and Al Molo, both upscale pan-Italian venues; and Campagna, a fine dining Italian eatery.
“All our concepts have menus that allow for sharing and trying different types of foods,” Fakahany says. “It’s a very convivial approach to eating. Some of our restaurants are destinations, especially on the elevated side, but many of our venues are neighborhood spots that guests visit often. They’re more casual and relaxed. Every location has a comfortable, accessible atmosphere. We want our guests to be themselves and not be intimidated in any way.”
This unpretentious approach to high-end Italian dining has served Altamarea Group well. Though the company declines to release revenues, beverage alcohol accounts for roughly 30 percent of overall sales, led overwhelmingly by wine. At the top-tier locations, wine comprises up to 85 percent of beverage revenues and it accounts for 70 percent at the more casual outlets, with glass pours averaging about 30 percent of the wine business. Marea and Ai Fiori both offer 1,000 wine selections, while Due Mari, Costata and the restaurants at the Bedford Post Inn in Bedford, New York, have more than 500 labels. Altamarea’s casual venues, such as Osteria Morini, aim for a 200-bottle wine menu.
“We definitely have wine-driven restaurants and we seek out allocated and smaller-production rare gems to showcase on our lists,” says Hristo Zisovski, Altamarea Group’s corporate beverage director and lead sommelier. “Overall, Brunello, Montalcino and Super-Tuscan wines are very popular, and Chianti is coming back. Sangiovese-based wines are doing really well. Our big three are usually Brunello, Amarone and Barolo. They always add depth to our wine menus. And Sicily is starting to be really fun and exciting, especially for Burgundy varietals and aromatic lighter wines.”
Every restaurant has its own wine director, who works with Zisovski on a beverage strategy. Though he oversees the drinks program, Zisovski allows each in-house team to take ownership of the venue’s list. The beverage director visits as many as five Altamarea properties in a day, spending much of the week in New York City, but also traveling regularly to New Jersey and Washington, D.C. Overall, the company has roughly 1,000 employees, including its own corporate staff in charge of finance, business development and legal affairs—a nod to Fakahany’s business expertise.
“Our retention rate is extremely high and allows us to create a culture of excellence,” Fakahany says. “Our clients benefit from this standard of consistency, which has helped us develop our reputation. We rotate our people constantly among the concepts and brands to develop familiarity across the Altamarea Group portfolio. Our guests notice the similarity in service and dining experience regardless of price point or location.”
Upscale But Approachable
The company’s flagship restaurant, Marea, is named after the Italian word for “tide” and puts a heavy emphasis on Italian seafood. Chef White uses the venue to showcase his interpretation of coastal cuisine, from oysters and raw fish crudo to house-made pasta and seasonal seafood dishes like grilled Mediterranean cuttlefish and steamed black sea bass (entrées are $29 to $57). The restaurant also offers guests the option of ordering a whole fish for the table or choosing a four-course prix-fixe menu ($99). Marea’s massive European wine list includes traditional glass pours ($11 to $80) and more upscale labels served by the glass using a Coravin system ($42 to $125), including the 2000 Case Basse di Gianfranco Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva and the 1998 Château d’Yquem Sauternes. Bottles range from $34 to $24,500 for the 1985 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Marea also features an Italian-themed cocktail menu with drinks like the Ambrosiana, made with Stolichnaya vodka, Pierre Ferrand Orange Curaçao, lime and vanilla, and the Colombo, comprising Maestro Dobel Tequila, Combier Crème de Pamplemousse Rose liqueur, Aperol aperitif, grapefruit, and a mixture of Controne hot pepper and salt (signature drinks are $17). The restaurant offers a selection of Italian and New York craft beers too, including labels from Birra Menabrea Brewery and Captain Lawrence Brewery ($10 to $18 a bottle).
The company’s other high-end restaurants, Ai Fiori and Ristorante Morini, take different approaches to Italian cuisine. Ai Fiori in the Langham Place Hotel in Midtown Manhattan showcases the Italian and French Riviera, while Ristorante Morini on Manhattan’s Upper East Side offers pan-Italian regional fare. At Ai Fiori, the menu lists a variety of pastas and risottos, along with seafood and meat dishes, from Long Island duck to pan-roasted venison to coq au vin–style guinea hen (entrées are $33 to $52). Ai Fiori also boasts an extensive drinks menu that includes cocktails ($16) like the Green Vespa, made with Grey Goose La Poire vodka, sage, lemon and cayenne, and a 40-page wine list ($9 to $130 a glass; $36 to $486 a 375-ml. bottle; $49 to $9,750 a 750-ml. bottle).
Ristorante Morini is designed to be a more elegant take on the company’s Osteria Morini brand and offers pastas, fish and meat dishes. Highlights include Maine lobster ravioli, fusilli served with Neapolitan pork shoulder ragú, an Adriatic seafood stew and a grilled prime strip steak (entrées are $23 to $46; the restaurant also has a four-course prix fixe for $75). The venue’s drinks list features several specialty cocktails, as well as aperitifs and classics ($14), imported and domestic craft beers ($8 to $24 a bottle), and myriad European wines ($13 to $90 a glass; $40 to $1,500 a 750-ml. bottle).
“We’re committed to having strong cocktail and wine programs in all our restaurants,” Fakahany says. “We’ve found that our clients are increasingly eating across our portfolio because they like the familiarity and the amount of attention we pay to our guests.” He adds that consumers are going back to basics. “They’re reverting to dishes that are familiar but very well executed, and while our guests enjoy wines from different regions, they also choose classic cocktails with a twist,” Fakahany notes.
A sophisticated take on the pizzeria, Nicoletta has locations in Manhattan and Bernardsville, New Jersey. The venue serves a variety of specialty pizzas topped with ingredients like fennel sausage, wild mushrooms, fried eggplant and prosciutto, and guests can also create their own pies from a lengthy list of upscale toppings (signature pizzas are priced around $17 to $24). Nicoletta highlights wines on tap, with roughly 20 pours ($9 to $12 a glass; $23 to $75 a half-liter), and offers several craft beers, as well as growler service ($8 a draft pour; $17 a growler).
Altamarea’s furthest departure from upscale Italian dining is The Butterfly, a mid-20th century cocktail bar and supper club in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood that features cocktails by mixologist Eben Freeman. The venue’s signature drinks include the Fiore Frappe, comprising Leblon cachaça, Nardini Acqua di Cedro liqueur, Esprit de June liqueur, lemon and grapefruit, and the Fortissimo, a blend of Nonino lo Chardonnay grappa, Rabarbaro Zucca amaro, Gaston Rivière Pineau des Charentes and orange (cocktails are $13 to $15). The Butterfly also boasts a menu of upscale bar snacks and American classics like fried chicken and patty melts ($6 to $22).
Rounding out the group’s portfolio, Costata is an Italian-influenced steak house in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, and Due Mari serves Pan-Italian seafood in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Altamarea Group has a partnership with the Bedford Post Inn in Bedford, New York, and operates the hotel’s high-end Italian restaurant Campagna, as well as casual its American eatery, The Barn. The company has also ventured outside the United States, opening the steak house Chop Shop in London, the upscale Italian venue Al Molo in Hong Kong and an outpost of Ristorante Morini in Istanbul.
With sleek restaurant interiors and approachable atmospheres, Altamarea Group’s concepts fill a niche in their markets. And the company aims to make each of its venues a good neighbor. Philanthropy is an important part of the company’s business model and one that Fakahany takes seriously. “All of our leases are very long term,” he says. “We’re part of the communities that we serve.” The company focuses on organizations that support health and nutrition awareness, education and disaster relief, the food and hospitality industry, and local community outreach.
Going forward, the drinks business will continue to play a key role in Altamarea’s venues. The company benefits from having a varied consumer demographic with enough disposable income to dine out regularly. “The bar is an important piece of our image,” Zisovski says. “With beverage, we try to be different than our competitors. We feature some familiar names and we want people to feel comfortable with our drinks lists, but also offer labels that people don’t know. We have something for everyone and aim to guide people, not push them. That’s our style.”