Mangia Bene continues a family tradition with great food and exceptional service
by Diana Saenger
Taking over a family restaurant goes beyond tradition. That decision comes with a big responsibility. Lenny Donato grew up in the extended East County Donato family, so working in an Italian restaurant was very familiar to him. For years he worked hand in hand with his father, Dominic, at Mangia Bene Restorante Italiano when it opened in 2003. When Domenic retired Lenny Donato took over with a gusto that’s brought new ideas, recipes and customers to the thriving business.
“My dad actually retired several years ago but he keeps showing up everyday!” Donato said. “I became the official soul owner six months ago, but I love having my dad around, and he was instrumental in helping me create a new Wine Lounge.”
Donato has a BA in business management that is paralleled with extensive food service business. He worked for casinos and large restaurants like Olive Garden to get to know the business inside and out. “Now I’ve taken all of my experience in the corporate world as well as years working with the family business and applied that to think outside the box,” he said. “You can’t wait for people to come to you; you have to be creative to get customers into your business.”
One of the ideas Donato put into action was to create a Wine Lounge in his already picturesque restaurant. A short remodel brought in a lovely wine bar reminiscent of one in a first class restaurant. “I’m very proud of this Wine Lounge; I think it offers something unique to the community. A lot of new customers are finding it a nice place to come and have a glass of wine and relax out on the patio and watch the world go by.”
Food is extremely important to a restaurant. Many of the recipes at Mangia Bene are from Donato’s grandfather, Gian Belvedere. “I’ve added new products but 25 percent of the recipes have been around for generations. Some of the new items I create are to keep up with the times like serving pastas with cream, pink, béchamel or pomodoro sauces. Our main sauce is more than 50 years old and it’s still very popular, and I respect my grandfather’s recipes.”
Donato knows in addition to great food, a successful restaurant must have exceptional service. “It’s very important to me that I have the best service possible,” he said. “Out of my five servers, two have been here since we’ve opened. I continually get compliments about all of them as well as our food.”
Covering the walls of Mangia Bene are paintings that create a get-away-feel and old family photos where the young Donato boys are tossing pizza’s at early ages. The restaurant is very family oriented. Donato prides himself in getting to know his customers by first names. “I enjoy going up to tables to introduce myself and make sure everything is okay. I value their comments and grateful that over the years they have been very positive.”
Donato is big on giving back. He sees his community restaurants as partners in the community rather than competition and feels it’s hospitable to visit the owners often. He’s a big contributor to organizations with fundraisers such as Mother Goose and Saint Madeleines. He offers specials during the car shows on Wednesday nights in the summer and the concerts at the promenade.
In the back of Mangia Bene is a big banquet room available for wedding receptions and parties. It’s well decorated and prices are very reasonable. “I can do a big family meal for $13.95,” Donato said. “Food cost has gone up 40 to 50 percent, but I try to hold those costs down and not pass it on to my customers. I’d rather work with volume. We also have catering and party trays available for pick up, and I do occasional wine paring parities.
With family restaurants around East County including Mario’s, Donatos, and Mamma Rosa’s, Donato is proud of his family’s tradition. When asked what his secret to success, he replied,” “Great food and really good service.”
Mangia Bene, open Sunday - Thursday 11 a.m - 9 p.m.; Friday to 10 p.m.; Sunday 3 - 10 p.m., is located at 221 East Main Street, El Cajon, (619) 444-0303. Visit their website at www.mangia-bene.com.