Chef Jonathan Luce has walked away from Bellanico after serving as the Oakland restaurant’s chef since it opened 11 years ago. He’s setting out on his own to start a new restaurant group with a yet-to-be-named partner.
Luce left Bellanico, an Italian staple frequently praised by former Chronicle critic Michael Bauer and a sister restaurant to the now-closed Aperto in Potrero Hill, in October. The departure took place in the midst of more than a year of failed negotiations to buy the Glenview neighborhood restaurant from owners Chris and Elizabeth Frumusa. The Frumusas and Luce all describe their former working relationship as tense and stressful.
“Tensions were really high. We felt like we had to part ways,” says Elizabeth, who explained that she and her husband initially wanted to sell Bellanico to Luce as a way to stop working together. Ultimately, they couldn’t agree on a price and ended negotiations last week.
Now, Chris is leading the kitchen and the Frumusas say they are not selling Bellanico. They just signed a new 12-year lease. “We’ve got teenage girls, there’s no way we can retire,” says Elizabeth.
Luce hoped Bellanico would be his restaurant group’s first acquisition, but now he’s focused on finding a new space in Oakland or Berkeley. Given his expertise in Italian cuisine, he’d like to open another Italian restaurant, perhaps a Californian bistro, and maybe a salumi-focused spot, too. “Not pizza, not ramen,” he says.
His new restaurant group is called Lipstick on a Pig, a name that speaks to his ethos of wise investments — namely, finding spaces that don’t require pricey build-outs. He hopes to open two or three restaurants in the East Bay within the next few years.
“So many restaurants fail because they try to fit a concept into a space that doesn’t necessarily work. When I look at spaces, I look at the neighborhood, the demographics, the layout,” he says. “We’re going to be small and fast and efficient.”