Racing to a sophisticated meal

Photographs by Bob Rozycki

Twice a year, a horse race takes over the Italian town of Siena.

Tracing its roots back to medieval days, the Palio di Siena features riders, mounted bareback, racing through the streets.

Today, Il Palio draws spectators from around the world. It’s also an event that draws together the local community, from its richest to its most humble, out to celebrate its own history in a splendid display of horsemanship, fanfare and pride.

Bob Scinto, the Fairfield County real-estate mogul behind R.D. Scinto Inc., was especially touched by the latter element of the race when creating a theme for the dining destination within his Enterprise Corporate Park in Shelton.

“What I loved about it, the race brought together all social groups,” he says.

And that is the theme of Il Palio Ristorante, a place equally fit for a casual weekday lunch or the most elegant special-occasion meal.

You sense the excitement of Il Palio from the moment you first see the restaurant, which Scinto says was a $3 million project when he created it some dozen years ago. The classic limestone building, a study in quiet elegance, comes alive with a hand-carved bronze out front. The vivid depiction of two racers in Il Palio was commissioned by Scinto from a foundry in Florence that dates from the 1860s.

Once inside, Il Palio’s warm-and-welcoming interior transports the diner into a European escape where the focus is on family, food and impeccable service.

Scinto, new to the restaurant business back then, certainly did his homework.

“I tried to immerse myself into what makes a restaurant work,” he says. “The restaurant business is really a very complex business.”

He was studying everything from profits per seat to the importance of lighting to create the proper mood.

“The secret of restaurants is lighting,” he says. “There’s a real science to the lighting.”

Despite his efforts, Scinto says, the restaurant was losing $200,000 a year for nearly a decade.

It was then time for a relaunch, so he reached out to Chef Margherita Aloi, who would turn things around.

“She has a passion for the business,” Scinto says. “I recognized it as soon as I met her.”

And that passion has translated into a well-respected menu to which the noted Italian-born chef brings her personal touch. It’s seasonal fare, with recent dinner offerings ranging from imported linguine with Manila clams, hot cherry peppers and basil to roasted free-range chicken breast and legs over sautéed escarole and cannellini beans to grilled boneless pork chop with Acacia honey-glazed cipolline onions, mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach and figs in a Port wine sauce.

Aloi was discovered by New York restaurateur Pino Luongo and brought to the city for Le Madri, where she would rise through the ranks to become executive chef. She would go on to have her own Manhattan restaurant, cook at the James Beard House and eventually, she and husband Cliff Pereira opened Aloi in New Canaan.

In 2011, Scinto, a close friend, convinced Aloi and Pereira to partner with him to relaunch the restaurant as Il Palio by Margherita Aloi.

Scinto is not one to sit back and watch things unfold, though. There must be constant forward motion.

“You need to spend money every year on your asset,” he says.

Thomas Masaryk, a Stratford-based artist who specializes in trompe l’oeil and painted finishes, was on hand to create the original artwork when the restaurant first opened.

Recently, he completed a dynamic mural for one of the main-floor dining rooms.

The original work, particularly the upstairs banquet room, draws a visitor right into another world, surrounded by faux marble accents, stately crests and a vivid ceiling filled with stars.

“I had to create Siena for him,” Masaryk says of Scinto’s vision. “I had to do a lot of research.”

In contrast, the new mural is a walk through Aloi’s life, with Masaryk using snapshots ranging from family photographs to market scenes to broad landscapes for inspiration.

“The painting is something you kind of want to walk in and discover,” Masaryk says. “I call it ‘Italian Dreamland.’”

There are also quotes to be integrated, which, when translated from the Italian, range from “Work makes men noble” to “He who wants too much will have nothing.”

The mural is a testament to the restaurant’s own history, reach and overall appeal.

“The restaurant’s all about families,” Masaryk says. “It’s all about relationships with people.”

A theme of Il Palio in Siena so artfully recreated in Shelton.

For more details on Il Palio Ristorante, at 5 Corporate Drive in Shelton, call (203) 944-0770 or visit ilpalioct.com for more details. For more on artist Thomas Masaryk, visit oldworldartist.com.

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