Gino Vuolo of Gino's Italian Ristorante was born into a family of restaurateurs in 1962 in Naples, Italy.
“My grandmother’s restaurant in Naples is still open. That’s been open since 1906,” Gino said. “That’s where the whole family broke away from.”
Vuolo’s uncle opened a restaurant in Chicago that he operated for 58 years and is now, like the Naples restaurant, run by one of Vuolo’s cousins.
“We never really had culinary training, you learned that as a kid,” he explained. “You start on prep and dishes and then move up."
Vuolo came to the United States at the age of 2 with his father, who ran La Taverna Ristorante in New York City's Empire State Building. When the business was bought out in 1984, the family returned to Naples and their flagship restaurant.
In 1989, Vuolo met Tia, who was in Naples visiting her brother, a US Navy Commander and a patron of the restaurant. Tia ended up staying with Vuolo in Italy to finish school, and in 1993 she gave birth to the couple's daughter, Jessica. The following year Tia and Vuolo were married and moved their new family to Boise. Because he knew nothing else, Vuolo soon began thinking about starting a restaurant of his own.
“You can’t get me out of here now, I love it so much” Vuolo said. “This is home now.”
Vuolo’s daughter Jessica is now 18 and works at the restaurant. His brother, Tony Vuolo, runs Tony’s Pizzeria Teatro in Boise. Vuolo, who will turn 50 in April, has spurs in both feet and a legion of loyal regulars to show for his time in the restaurant business.
“My main thing is to take care of people and make them happy,” he explained. “It’s not the buck. You need that to survive, but I think if your customers are happy, then everything else will fall into place.”
What food do you loathe?
Grapefruit. I just don’t like the flavor.
If you weren’t cooking for a living, what would you be doing?
I never had Plan B. I pretty much grew up in this and it’s been my life. My family has always had restaurants so we didn’t have to stray from that.
What was your most gruesome injury as a chef?
I took the corner of my thumb off with a slicer. I just put it back on, put some duct tape on it, and it just melded together. I was 16. That was the old days, you just kept going.
Oleg Mironov hails from Sochi, a Russian city on the coast of the Black Sea. Though he initially studied to be a teacher, he gave it up after less than six months because it didn’t pay well enough. Oleg later opened a coastal restaurant where he worked in a managerial capacity. He knew the headaches involved in running a restaurant, and when he entered this country as a refugee 18 years ago, getting back into the service industry was the furthest thing from his mind.
Instead Oleg started working at Hewlett-Packard, the beginning of a series of jobs at different electronics companies. While working as a supervisor at Western Electronics, Oleg met his now-wife Svetlana (Lana for short), a woman from Belarus who had been an attorney before immigrating to the United States. After Oleg left that company, the two began dating. It was Lana who pushed the idea of opening a restaurant when Oleg was laid off from his last electronics job. Lana’s persistence was the seed that eventually grew into the Russian Bear Cafe, which opened in February of 2008 on Rivershore Lane in Eagle.
The Mironovs bought used equipment, found a contractor who would build them a counter inexpensively and did all of the paint and decorating themselves. A cousin of Oleg’s who works in design and photography in Moscow sent the pictures of Russian landmarks that adorn the cafe’s walls.
Oleg is quick to point out that Lana’s lack of a formal culinary background doesn’t mean that she can’t cook.
“We grew up at a time when, for girls, it was almost mandatory to learn how to cook,” Oleg explained. “Otherwise there was no chance for them to get married.”
Long before they got Russian Bear Cafe off the ground, Lana was bringing back empty trays from workplace potlucks and hosting dinner parties for the couple's close friends. At first the cafe’s menu consisted of coffee, Russian crepes and cabbage rolls, but it wasn’t long before people who had lived in or visited Russia began asking for their favorite dishes.
While Lana does most of the cooking based on her family’s recipes, Oleg is solely responsible for a few items—including his great-grandmother’s hot sauce recipe and a traditional beef stroganoff lacking mushrooms or egg noodles. Oleg takes great pride in his skills with meat, including a prime rib that's tender enough to eat with only a fork. Some customers even leave their phone numbers to be notified when it’s on the menu.
Oleg and Lana have added a concessions trailer to their enterprise, which can be found at various fairs and festivals in the spring and summer. The Mironovs have been married for five years, and have a son who will be six-years-old this month. Family is very important to them, and you can feel it when you’re at Russian Bear Cafe. They laugh and joke with customers, and love nothing more than to see people linger over their meals.
“We want people to feel like they’re at home,” said Oleg.
What has been your biggest culinary disaster?
Lana: A year ago, I made borscht and I put in something too much, and it was so bitter. It was bitterness that we never experienced before in our lives. We took the whole [thing] and threw it in the dumpster.
If you knew the world was ending tomorrow, what would you choose for your last meal?
Oleg: The best steaks I have ever made and a nice, big bottle of beer.
Lana: Ice cream.
What is your favorite food/restaurant scene in a movie?
Oleg: It’s not a movie, but I always love to see the restaurant scenes in The Sopranos. I want to be there with those guys, the way they eat. I can tell they love and enjoy food.