Giuseppe Miggiano is the owner of Casa Tua, a couple of casual Italian restaurants in London’s Camden and King’s Cross. Known in both local communities for his affable manner, strong work ethic and trade mark moustache, Giuseppe built his business from scratch. And he still works a 7 day week. Palate’s co-editor J A Smith (JS) caught up with Giuseppe (GM) over an Aperol Spritz at the original Camden branch of Casa Tua to find out more about his career, his views on the problems facing the industry and Italian food…
JS: When you first arrived in London you started off as a bartender. What sparked off your interest in food and running restaurants?
GM: Quite an interesting question. I studied hospitality for 5 years in Puglia. My uncle worked in the industry and I was brought up in a family and environment surrounded by food – the pasta, tomato sauce, that kind of thing I love. I decided to move to London. My brother lived here for 15 years so I had someone to welcome me at the very start but he told me I had to follow my own way. I started in the kitchen at Barrafina washing plates. Then I moved to an Italian place in Soho as a barback, learning how to properly maintain a bar, looking after all the details to ensure the bar runs smoothly, and so on. But I didn’t want to stay in that position so I pushed myself to get promoted to bartender. I started to read and study and get more confident in English and my knowledge of food and drink. And this set me on my path to realise my dreams. And I say dreams because it was always a dream to open my own place. I thought London is the right city for this. It’s somewhere where people can be what they want. Great opportunities. From that moment I started to work a lot harder in different bars, hotels, fine dining and so on, to learn different kinds of service and experiences.
JS: And when did you open Casa Tua?
GM: I opened the first Casa Tua in Camden in August 2013. That was so exciting. I need to say thanks to my original business partner, John O’Hanlon, who helped me to find the right amount of money and believed in my dreams and vision. As you can see here you get that homely, friendly, cosy feeling and we always try to maintain a high standard of food and drink. We work very closely with the suppliers. They come to visit us and we visit them as we want to know where the goods come from and to ensure consistency. It was a hard time at the beginning, and I was quite young, only 28.
JS: That’s a young age to start a business –
GM: It is and I didn’t really know that much at that age! But I just pushed myself. Reading, research, meeting people, being open with people, networking – step by step I got there. Casa Tua of course means “your home” – so the feeling, the experience we want to deliver to our customers is a “home away from home.” It’s not Michelin-starred or fancy fine dining, just simple traditional Mediterranean ‘old grandma’ food.
JS: And you specialise in the food of Puglia mostly?
GM: Yeah. That’s where I’m from. I believe the Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest in the world – the minerals, the oils, are all so good for you – so the idea is to replicate what we do in the south of Italy, specifically in Puglia, here in London. It wasn’t so simple at the beginning – we import very specific olive oil and wine which was tricky at the start due to the taxation and the politics. We have a sourdough bread called Altamura which is made with semolina flour and we make freshly. The fruit and vegetables are all fresh from the market. All the recipes are done the traditional way or how my mother made them! So the aubergine parmigiana for example is exactly how she made it – there are many recipes but that’s the one we have here.
the experience we want to deliver to our customers is a “home away from home.” It’s not Michelin-starred or fancy fine dining, just simple traditional Mediterranean ‘old grandma’ food
JS: And the carbonara is done the traditional way too
GM: It is, yes. We actually have customers from Rome – my girlfriend is from Rome too – and they say our carbonara is better here than in Rome! Don’t ask me why… maybe it’s the way we mix the cheese with the egg, and of course there’s no cream.
JS: What was it about Camden and King’s Cross specifically that attracted you to those areas for your business?
GM: Another beautiful question! I wasn’t born in London so I don’t know the areas. We literally just came across King’s Cross by chance. I chose our site there because I just liked the look of it and the location. I have a simple philosophy – it doesn’t matter if it’s the high street or somewhere off the beaten track, just as long as it looks good when the sun is shining.
JS: Actually both the King’s Cross and Camden branches are in excellent locations – right near a station and both benefit from a lot of footfall
GM: Exactly. Before we set up the King’s Cross one I spent a couple of days watching it just seeing how many people walked past. That site had been closed for 2 years and there were 5 competitors for it, including a big chain, but we were very lucky that the freeholder chose us. That site was also quite hard at the beginning as we had a few problems with licensing and the council. We had to fight a bit. But now it’s doing really well and is very successful. We’re actually looking for a third site…
JS: Oh really? I was going to ask you what your future plans are…
GM: So we’re looking for a third place, yeah. Where it will be I don’t know. It’s still up in the air. I want it to feel right. The local area is important, yes, but it’s more about what it looks like and the gut feeling I get.
JS: It’s a difficult time to be opening restaurants though, and casual dining in particular is suffering. You must’ve been following all the news about large chains collapsing. Does any of that worry you?
GM: A lovely question for two reasons. First of all, yes, Brexit may be compromising those businesses but Brexit isn’t the only reason. Where Brexit is scary is when it comes to people: lots of people on the continent are feeling less confident about coming to the UK to work, so there is diminished talent. There really is. They’re worried about the security of work. So yes, certainly, smaller businesses are finding it hard to recruit staff. But really the bigger chains, in my opinion, are closing down because they lost control of their own businesses. When companies become too big they just lose control – they can’t contain the overheads and so on.
JS: And what do you think of British people now London is your home?
GM: Ha ha, I’m not sure if it’s a good idea for me to answer that! One thing I will say is I find British make Italians feel welcome here in London – at least that’s my personal experience. Another thing I’ve learnt from Brits is at least you try to be pragmatic about solving problems.
I get my energy from my customers! If my customers are happy, I’m happy
JS: I note as well you don’t serve pizza in either of your restaurants.
GM: No, no, we don’t…
JS: Why is that?
GM: If you type in Google “what is the most popular Italian food” it’s always pizza or gelato. They’re the first words kids say. Everyone’s obsessed with pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza… but there are very few places in London that know how to do it properly. We focus on a shorter menu –
JS: Less is more…
GM: Yes, exactly. We just like to focus on those Italian specialities you don’t see so often. So at the moment, no pizza at Casa Tua! Don’t get me wrong. Maybe in the future we will open a pizzeria perhaps as a different brand but I can’t tell you about that yet. I have a particular vision of how I want to do it.
JS: So, you basically work seven days a week, morning ‘til night, dividing your time between King’s Cross and Camden, and yet you don’t look tired. Where do you get your energy from?
GM: From you! I get my energy from my customers! If my customers are happy, I’m happy.
JS: That’s a very good answer.
GM: Of course everyone has things they believe in – their religion, whatever – but for myself I get my energy from serving customers. Of course you need to have good health and maintain that but without positive energy you can’t work in this business. Many bad things have happened in my life. I lost my original business partner – he passed away a few years ago – and my dad. From that I realised that life is too short, you know. And there’s no point making a drama out of things that aren’t a drama. My business partner taught me in any tricky situation there is a solution. It doesn’t matter what the solution is, there’s still a solution. And above all it’s pointless working for something that doesn’t make you happy.
JS: What do you think is the most important thing in a restaurant: the food, the service or the ambience?
GM: The ambience comes from the food and the service. So what is important is getting the food and the service right, and then a great atmosphere flows from that. And of course you need staff with a great attitude. I believe strongly in teamwork. We do a lot of training so our staff feel comfortable and enjoy being here, almost like being at home – well, not too much or they would get lazy! – but you know what I mean. When we open our doors to the public we treat everyone the same – it doesn’t matter if we know a customer already or not, everyone deserves special treatment. We’ve had celebrities here and we treat them the same as anyone else. That is Casa Tua.
we treat everyone the same. We’ve had celebrities here and we treat them the same as anyone else. That is Casa Tua
JS: Last but not least, when are you going to take a holiday??
GM: Ha ha, good question! Holiday? Ha! Beautiful question. Customers ask me how I’m still alive. In the first year of Casa Tua I took just three days off: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, that was it. Seriously. I was really focused on launching the business but also enjoying it, seeing a little place grow from literally nothing.
JS: But now that business is doing well do you feel you deserve to take a bit more time off?
GM: Yeah, maybe, I now take a week off each year. But just a week. My employees get 28 days. But I take a week. I just love my work. I’m happy. Yes it’s difficult with family sometimes. I call my Mum nearly every day so she knows I’m alive! I do miss summer to be honest and I do try to allow myself that week off in the summer.
JS: Well on that note Giuseppe, I’ll leave you to get back to work. Grazie mille for the Aperol Spritz!
Casa Tua is located in Camden and King’s Cross. Each branch is open 7 days a week serving traditional Italian food and specialities from Puglia as well as wine, beverages and cocktails.
Casa Tua (Camden)
176 Royal College Street
Casa Tua (King's Cross)
106 Cromer Street