It's A Love Affair

By Robert Bickell

Jay Mitchell is in love - with Italy. He has traveled there exactly 92 times (he keeps track of each trip). He can't actually relocate because he has his own Italian thing going in New York. It's called Gente, and for the past seven years, this restaurant has been a part of this long-lasting love affair. Mr. Mitchell brought a piece of his beloved Italy to 45th Street in Manhattan, and he spreads the love with a bevy of happy guests who share his passion for authentic Italian cuisine.

Jay is part of the dining experience at Gente, and his customers know that if he isn't cooking, meeting and greeting, and doing everything else a restaurant owner must do, he's probably in Italy. He claims he achieves added culinary inspiration with each trip, so one can suggest that this particular affair is a good thing.

Jay didn't attend culinary school and he didn't grow-up dreaming about owning a restaurant. He spent most of his adult life in the fashion business with international travel being a big part it. Much of his travel included classic cities like Milan, Florence and Rome - places with amazing restaurants. Jay became a student of the game by selling clothes and visiting great restaurants, and somewhere along the line he began to dream of opening his own place.

His recipe for success was to include the world's best olive oil and his beloved heirloom tomatoes. You add things like superb (and affordable) wines (a long list of Italian wines by the glass), and gelato and sorbetto flown in daily from Italy. You also make your own biscotti, and everything is fresh and delicious. In 1999, Gente was born and a short seven years later, the dream is still alive and just keeps getting better. He wanted to replicate the real Italian experience in New York and his loyal clientele will suggest that he has done just that.

Of course, it's a lot easier dining in restaurants than actually running them, and Mr. Mitchell has had to learn his new trade right on the firing line. One of the most pressing problems for any new restaurant is waiting to be discovered. This can take years to happen and most restaurants don't have the luxury (money) to wait to achieve that "instantaneous" success. It helped when he cooked at the James Beard House, and of course, he continues to build a loyal customer base. The setbacks can be dramatic, as the ones shared by the entire community as result of the events of 9/11. He has yet to be included in the Zagat Guide, and the New York Times has failed to make a visit. The competition is staggering and restaurants in New York continue to open and close on an almost daily basis.

Seven years is an eternity in this game, and Gente just keeps doing what it does best - simple (authentic) and affordable Italian food in a friendly atmosphere created by one of New York's friendliest owners. Jay was blessed with the personality and all he needed was the experience. It is true that a love affair has to be much more than traveling back and forth to Italy. You have to love the restaurant business itself, and without this love (passion) there is little hope for success.

Jay Mitchell has the love and the passion and a very good restaurant. Gente has already made it and perhaps the major discovery process is soon to take place. It probably doesn't matter because this owner is having fun and he's still there and cooking. Love makes good things happen - just ask Jay Mitchell.

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