Italian food is one of the most common foreign cuisines in Lebanon — so much so that at first glance one wonders what the added value of Villaggio, the latest culinary destination of the Kazami Group, will be. The distinction, however, may find its foundation in the charming setting.
Driving by Kantari road you cannot help but notice, on the corner of Hamra and Downtown, two prefabricated huts nestled in a vast area covered with lush trees, greenery and anchored by a giant clay fountain; Villaggio radiates a warm ambiance which invites the passerby to stop by and give it a try. The restaurant is modeled after the outdoor eateries of Capri in southern Italy and so the emphasis is precisely on this authentic and relaxed setting. “We always wanted to create a garden inside of Beirut, which is something Italian restaurants in Lebanon lack,” explains Melissa Bakhous, senior manager at Kamazi Group. “The location and size of the land helped us in creating that. To express the freshness and zest of Capri’s restaurants, the lemon fruit was chosen as Villaggio’s theme.”
Neither sour nor squeezed
This theme radiates through the soon-to-be blossoming lemon trees planted in the garden, the lemon motif plates on which the meals are served and the baskets of lemon fruit scattered around the premises, all of which add to the summery feel of the place. The garden seats 200 clientele, but the layout indicates that these patrons would not feel overcrowded if the garden were filled to capacity.
Villaggio’s interior complements the outdoor setting in that it has a high ceiling with glass panels all around, allowing those inside to still feel like they are sitting outside. The interior — which seats 150 — is detailed, however, with such things as a gray brick lining in the back of the bar area, and dark wood tables, which is at odds with the warm Italian vibe and ends up being somewhat awkward.
Compared to the setting, the food is average. That is not to say that there aren’t any outstanding dishes — such as the perfectly al dente frutti de mare pasta and the slice-of-heaven that was the chocolate fondant. The pizza, however, came dry with a powdery crust, and the eggplant parmesan was nothing to write home about.
Not the cheapest bill in town, but Villaggio is decent value
Open from noon to midnight, the restaurant is currently receiving 300 people per day, and according to Bakhous, it takes a staff of 45 people on the floor and 25 in the kitchen to attend to this number of customers.
Villaggio does not target a specific clientele, but rather hopes that everyone will feel at home. “If you come during the day, you will find us full with society ladies who lunch, businessmen from the neighboring banks and companies,” says Bakhous. “At dinner time, you find couples enjoying a meal over wine and groups of young friends dining out. On Sundays, we cater mainly to families as parents feel comfortable having their children play in our garden and we also provide entertainment for them in terms of face painting and games.”
To reflect this attitude, prices at Villaggio are reasonable and one can enjoy a full meal without going bankrupt.
Villaggio is the third creation of Kazami Group, owned by Jihad Mikati and Mounir Zaatari, with each of these in close proximity to each other: Osaka Sushi Lounge, Chenbao high-end Chinese cuisine and now finally Villaggio, which is divided it into outlets: Limoncello coffee house and Villaggio Italian restaurant. The Kazami Group has recently sold Patrick’s Irish Pub on Uruguay Street.
In the case of Villaggio, the owners expect a return on investment in two years, if everything stays the same. While there are no future plans for the group to expand in Lebanon, they are betting on regional franchises, especially Osaka, which has been running for six years and has proven successful.
Villaggio is likely to experience continued success as the setting is beautiful, the prices are right and the food is reasonable. Those in the mood for high-end Italian cuisine, however, should probably go elsewhere.