Story by Liesel Schmidt | Photography by Jonathan Thorpe | @jthorpephoto
People assume that this is a family business in the way they think about ‘family business.’ Just because my last name is Landini, it’s a common assumption that my father handed me the restaurant. That’s not what happened.
I had to fight for this.
- Noe Landini
Listening to father and son Franco and Noe Landini talk about the small fishing village where their family is from, you can almost hear the sounds of Vespas motoring through the alleyways at night and the voices of fishmongers noisily negotiating with customers in the early hours of the morning, smell the sea air as it blows in from the port and taste the incredible flavors of freshly caught fish prepared by the hands of people whose understanding of simplicity translates into magic. It all started in Porto Santo Stefano, the seaport town where Franco was born and lived until love for a woman brought him to the United States. It was the same coastal village where his son, Noe, spent entire summers immersed in the culture and life of Tuscany and fell in love with Italy. So much of their lives are tied here, like an invisible thread stretching from its coastline to the waterfront on King Street, where Landini Brothers restaurant holds pride of place and stands waiting to welcome guests to experience a taste of the Italian way.
"For me to go back home when everybody knew I came to the United States would be a disgrace without achieving something.” - Franco Landini
Since opening its doors to Alexandria in 1979, that has been a tenet of Landini Brothers, a simple guarantee that, when you come to dine here, you’ll be served with hospitality and authenticity. It’s what has made the restaurant successful. For founding owner Franco, that success is the very thing that legitimized his decision to move to America and kept him here. “For me to go back home when everybody knew I came to the United States would be a disgrace without achieving something,” he says, explaining why he never really considered moving back to Tuscany, even after his marriage ended.
As many different paths as “achieving something” could have led him, Franco’s dream was to build on his passion for cooking and own his own restaurant. In his youth, he worked as a maître d’ in a restaurant where, interestingly enough, one of his regular customers was the Queen of Holland, who insisted that he call her by her given name. Later, he took a job working for the father of one of his childhood friends, proving his skills in the kitchen. “He asked how much I wanted to get paid, and I told him to give me three weeks, no pay,” Franco recalls. “At the end of the three weeks, he would tell me what he thought I was worth and if I should stay.”
Needless to say, Franco’s proficiency in cooking was apparent, as was his love for food. That affinity followed him to America, where he determinedly set his sights on his ultimate goal of becoming a restauranteur. After creating a partnership with his brother, Piero, to open, Franco managed the restaurant and kept a rigorous schedule that kept him heavily involved in the daily operations, while Piero stayed in the business side of things. Over the years, both brothers raised families and brought their children into the fold. And, while Franco’s son, Noe, may not have ever dreamed of becoming a restauranteur, the writing was on the wall.
Not that Noe was reading that writing. In fact, the decade he spent filling every possible role he could in his father’s restaurant, from laying tile to working the front and back of the house, did nothing to ignite his passion for the business. At the age of 22, Noe took time to think about the path he wanted to pursue—and where he landed left his father’s restaurant, and the Landini name, behind. “I didn’t want to be in the restaurant business at all,” he says.
Still, Noe had some skills that made him very attractive to Ritz-Carlton, who gave him the keys to the kingdom as one of the youngest food and beverage managers of three of their hotels. He’d found his niche—or so it seemed, until one very portentous lunch in 2007.
“I was sitting at lunch with my dad, and my uncle joined us at the table,” Noe recalls, setting the scene for what one can only imagine would quickly become a tense conversation. “My uncle says to me, ‘Has your father told you that we’re selling the restaurant?’”
The news came as a surprise to Noe—perhaps because he’d removed himself from the family business, perhaps because, after watching his father put so much time and energy and life into the restaurant, it seemed almost inconceivable. Still, Noe presented a buyer and brokered the sale—all the way up to the negotiating table. “I realized I wanted to buy it myself,” he says.
That realization, of course, wasn’t enough to make anything happen. And being a Landini by name meant nothing. It was business, plain and simple. So with business plans in hand, Noe met with loan officers at a bank. Despite the fact that they rejected him, he soldiered on to another bank, firm in his ideas and methodical in his vision. His uncle, being determined to move the timeline of the sale quickly, made the bank’s swift decision a contingency of the sale—a complication that had the potential of derailing any bank negotiations. Still, Noe’s strong presentation won them over and immediately impressed them. Noe became the owner of Landini Brothers in partnership with his father. “I was back in the restaurant business,” he says, with realization of how his life had come full circle back to the very place he so determinedly left.
While Noe may have kept the Landini Brothers name, there is nothing about this empire he has come to build that was handed to him. First, he acquired Landini Brothers in 2007, then added the Fish Market in 2008, then CXIII Rex above Landini in 2010, followed by Bar Deco in 2014 and Junction in 2016. Through each endeavor, he increased his holdings and become a force in the restaurant industry. In 2021, he stepped outside of the partnership with his father to forge another, which resulted in Donahue, a luxury lounge in Georgetown. "I've worked hard to prove that this isn’t a family business in the traditional sense,” he says. “It’s a family in that I have a hard-working team of people that I treat like family, but we’re not blood. I have a very different management style than my father. I know I can’t micromanage and I trust my team. The tenure here is… well, it just goes on and on. People stay here. They don’t leave because I take care of my team, through thick and thin, like a family. Still, people assume that this is a family business in the way they think about ‘family business.’ Just because my last name is Landini, it’s a common assumption that my father handed me the restaurant. That’s not what happened. I had to fight for this.”
His well-calculated decisions in opening new restaurant concepts prove that he wasn’t simply given anything. He worked for it, planned for it and made sacrifices to get where he is. Restaurants may be as much in his blood as his Italian heritage, but it took coming to this path on his own, on choosing this direction instead of simply being pointed to it, that made him a restauranteur.
Tattooed with the address of his grandparents’ home at 39 Via Marconi in Santo Stefano, he has a constant reminder of where it all started, of what his legacy is. But it’s also a reminder of a choice to save that legacy. In buying Landini Brothers, Noe kept a treasure in his family, rescuing what his father worked so hard to build and continuing to care for it himself. What he holds now is something that he can take pride in knowing he worked for, paid for, fought for.
Circling back to their roots in the seaport town of Santo Stefano, the Landini family—including Franco and all five of his children—recently took a trip to reunite there for the first time in 12 years. Reconnecting in such a beautiful place, the family was immersed in their history, in the culture, in the food and in stories brought to life and handed down, just like recipes passed through generations. It connects all of them, however divergent their paths as a family may have been.
While their own paths may overlap, Noe and his father differ greatly in their business practices. Still, they have a strong partnership and respect for one another that is, perhaps, all the better for the fact that Noe made the decision he did. Having retired to Fort Lauderdale, Franco is enjoying time away from the rigors of restaurant life, though he visits Alexandria regularly, where he can often be found in the kitchen, doing what he so dearly loves. Both see the value in where life has taken them, now, to this place of mutual regard for the work each has put in and the roles they now play. It’s the Landini way, it seems, not by name, but by choice.
Landini Brothers is located at 115 King St, Alexandria, VA 22314