Going Solo: A man with a delicious plan

Jeff Gigante is starting a new journey with his newest concept, Forbici

By Jo-Lynn Brown

Photos by Penny Rogo

Jeff Gigante is starting a new journey with his newest concept, Forbici.

This transition is pivotal because Gigante is arguably one of Tampa Bay’s busiest restaurateurs, with eight restaurants  under the Ciccio umbrella and a long list of philanthropic endeavors. The restaurant group employs more than 1,300 workers in the Tampa Bay area.

 Now, the 23-year restaurant veteran is focusing his efforts on a new Italian restaurant in Tampa’s Hyde Park Village. Set to open in November, Forbici is described as a modern take on Italian, with a menu that includes sharable plates, grain bowls and Roman-style pizzas. Roman pizzas are made in long slabs and often cut into rectangles with forbici—Italian for “scissors.”

 The project seems to be a full-circle moment in the life of Gigante, who was born in Leonia, New Jersey—just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, in 1978. His mother, Kathy, moved Gigante and his sister, Lesa, to St. Petersburg when Gigante was two.

 “This story, for me, is as much a homage to my mother, because she was a high school-educated woman who basically reinvented herself because she really didn’t have any work experience,” Gigante says. “When she first started down here, it was the ’70s, so what was big? Dinner theater.”

EARLY LIFE

 Gigante’s mother did public relations for the Country Dinner Playhouse Theater, and later worked for the Showboat Dinner Theater in north St. Petersburg.

 “I grew up going to these plays and seeing these actors, and meeting people like Bob Denver,” Gigante says.

 When Gigante talks about his mother, his voice softens and his face lights up. Love and gratitude seem to radiate from him. “She was just the most vibrant, amazing person that taught us all these life skills, like that you can have any life you want. It’s just how hard you want to work for it.”

 Gigante’s father passed away when he was a child, which helped foster some of his fears and insecurities while growing up. His sister was older than he was and would watch him in his mother’s absence, but he says he lacked a male role model.

 “Thank God [my mother] had the foresight to get me into Big Brothers Big Sisters right at the formative years, like 12, 13 or 14, I got with a gentleman who was amazing. He basically taught me. He understood my situation and he would come to my soccer games,” Gigante says.  “He taught me how to shake a man’s hand, look them in the eye, repeat their name back to them, things like that.”

THE BIG APPLE 

After growing up witnessing his mother’s work in the local spotlight, or at least near it, Gigante himself developed the acting bug and studied acting at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

There, Gigante opened his first restaurant in 1991, a pizzeria called Gigamo Brothers Pizza, with a best friend. “We borrowed $30,000 from a rich high school buddy of ours and opened up this pizza place because I saw this other group of kids doing it, and I was like, we could do this way better than them.”  And we did.

 He auditioned for the Burt Reynolds Institute for Film and Theatre in Jupiter, and was accepted. “They chose five guys and five girls out of several thousand.” While at the institute, Gigante studied with actors like Charles Nelson Reilly and Ossie Davis.

 One audition Gigante chose to miss was in Englewood, New Jersey. He decided to accept a double shift at the restaurant where he was working at the time, called Ciccio and Tony’s. “I was like guys, that’s $400 I’m going to make, and you guys are going to stand in a thousand-person line and read for some production assistant.”

Gigante did have a small brush with fame when he was cast in a soap opera called “Loving.”

“I remember going in to Ciccio and Tony’s and saying, sorry buddy, I’ve made it, I’ll give you guys my two weeks,” Gigante says.

Two weeks into his four-month contract, the soap was canceled.

“I went back to the restaurant with my tail between my legs, but they were great,” he says while laughing. “They were like, ‘Of course we’ll take you back, we love you.’”

Gigante soon started making plans to make it work in the restaurant business and to move back to the Tampa Bay area, where his roots were.

THE CICCIO NAME

 New York is where Gigante met Chef Luis Flores, the man behind nearly every dish from Ciccio Restaurant Group, Gigante says. Flores, from El Salvador, is a self-taught chef who learned to cook in the kitchens of hotels and moved with his family during a tumultuous time in the South American country. “If you had to pin the success on any one person of the entire group, it’s him,” Gigante says.

 After establishing the Ciccio name, Gigante says he and his partners didn’t make any money for 10 years.

 “I kept rolling every dollar I would make and save it for the next venture,” Gigante says. “I knew that as long as we didn’t make any huge mistakes, at some point, there would be the cumulative effect of money.”

LOVE AND MARRIAGE

 Gigante smiles a lot and seemingly is down-to-earth, but he’s happiest when he speaks of his wife, Erica, and children Ciro (10) and Isabel (6). “He’s my sweet angel, she’s my iron-willed child,” he says.

Married for 14 years, Gigante describes his wife as his best friend. “She makes me belly laugh uncontrollably, and she’s so strong. She’s the rock in our family and my favorite person to be with,” Gigante says.

Gigante wakes daily at 5:30 a.m., goes to the gym, returns home, and makes coffee for his wife. “What people wouldn’t know about me is I am a huge family man. I’m all routine,” he says.

 The family recently moved from Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard to the nearby Golf View Estates neighborhood, near the legendary Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club, to a house he describes as “very ‘Father of the Bride.’ ”

 “I’ve got a basketball court, very traditional-like, and I can’t believe that I go home to that every day. I pinch myself sometimes,” Gigante says.

 The Gigantes spend time at their Clearwater Beach condominium, and they love to travel. The family spent spring break in San Francisco, and drove down the coast of California, seeing Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Monterey and Los Angeles.

 GIVING BACK

 Torn between pride of his accomplishments, but mindful of his humble beginnings. Gigante says he takes nothing for granted. He is a big supporter of youth programs, probably thanks to his experiences without his father. He’s a partner for Train Up First, a Tampa-based online program that teaches life skills to people ages 11-19 through inspirational videos from notable figures, such as Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

“We launched that about one year ago, and we’ve got over 16,000 kids taking courses. That’s my legacy,” Gigante says. The program is currently at 22 schools.

 The restaurant group also sponsors the Children’s Cancer Center, feeding kids in treatment and their families on the third Thursday every month.

POKER FACE

 When Gigante isn’t being dad, husband or launching a new restaurant concept, he’s placing bets on one of his favorite pastimes—poker.

 He played in the World Series of Poker at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas this summer.

“Poker is about 90 percent skill and 10 percent putting yourself in the position to get lucky,” he says.

Gigante says the Bellagio poker room in Las Vegas is one of his favorites.

He’s also betting heavily on his new restaurant project, which will be the first from Gigante Hospitality Group. “I want to do it all—see what I’ve learned over the past two decades and if I’m as good as I think I am or maybe not, which is fine too. I’m very open to the journey, but I have a great feeling about what we are creating,” Gigante says. “I put in the 80-hour weeks for 15, 20 years. Now I’m at the tail end of that.”

 He says he will maintain a presence in the CRG restaurants, but it won’t be as hectic. “The ultimate goal is to just come in during the busy times, make sure everything is going great and move on to the next thing, or the next,” he says. “What I’ve realized, is it was never about money. It was never about a number for me. It was about having the respect, the success and being involved in the community. Building something that ended up being much bigger than myself.”

 Whatever Gigante has planned next, he says his love for the Tampa Bay area keeps him here. “The people here are the best ever, and they’re so friendly and open. Great people live here,” he says. “I think I will always hang my hat in this town.” ♦

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