Oscar Valverde is most comfortable at work, and it’s no wonder. The owner of the upscale Il Mulino Restaurant has been in the dining industry since 1979. Tucked into the north side of the Eglinton West strip in Forest Hill, the classic Italian hot spot is his home away from home.
After emigrating from Peru to Montreal to Chicago, Oscar landed in Toronto at age 18 and found work as a busboy at Bangkok Garden. Oscar quickly rose through the restaurant ranks. “Three months after being hired, I became waiter, and six months later, I was supervisor. A year after that, I was manager,” he recalls of his start in the biz.
Next came a string of fine dining stints over Toronto — Centro’s, Splendido, Aqua, Mistura and Sotto Sotto — where he worked alongside top chefs and restaurateurs such as Massimo Capra and Franco Prevedello.
The lessons he learned through each experience were invaluable when he bought Il Mulino in 2008 after falling for the high arched ceilings, fantastic food and upscale vibe. “Working alongside restaurant icons taught me the golden rule of fine dining,” Oscar says. And what is that? “The customer is king. Always.”
Oscar also learned that when it comes to running a successful business, you have to change it up. That means adding menu items on a regular basis; upgrading the décor with glass chandeliers, extra tables, art deco chairs and fresh plants; and giving the sous-chef free reign in the kitchen.
“Switching chefs was a blessing because his creativity is superb,” Oscar says. “Now, in addition to Italian continental, we have edible flowers for decoration, bison ribs, liver and all kinds of homemade sauces and desserts on our menu.”
Specialty items like homemade daily gnocchi, linguini with smoked duck, hot mushroom salad with arugula, seafood risotto, rack of lamb and grilled calamari are so popular the kitchen hardly keeps up with orders.
Il Mulino also books private parties with a personalized set menu and when Summerlicious and Winterlicious are in full swing, it’s hard to get in the door.
Although there are four full-time waiters, two food runners and a hostess, Oscar is almost always at the restaurant, and takes reservations personally. “Forty per cent of our clientele text me for a table,” he says.
And he knows when visitors are happy — and when they aren’t. “People email when their experience is fabulous or when it’s not, and they know they’ll get a response right away,” he says. “I’m here for my customers and they’re here for me.”