Over the years, chefs Gary Darling, Greg Reggio and Hans Limburg have created plenty of winning recipes in the kitchen. But it was while on a beach in Hawaii that the three friends cooked up their greatest creation to date -- their now 17-year-old restaurant management and consulting company, Taste Buds Inc., the powerhouse behind Semolina, Zea Rotisserie & Grill and Semolina's Bistro Italia. Though the partners sold the Semolina restaurants to investors 10 years ago, they bought them back in January and reworked the focus to be less about international pastas and more about the tastes of Italy. Today, they operate a total of 15 Semolina and Zea restaurants from Pensacola, Fla., to Albuquerque, N.M., and more are on the way.
"Back when we started, casual Italian restaurants were all the rage," says Reggio, the New Orleans native of the group, which opened its first Semolina in 1991. "But we said, 'Let's not just do the typical red, green and white sauces. Let's do an international twist on Italian.'" The concept was a hit. Dishes like Pad Thai, Pasta Jambalaya and Mac and Cheese Cake quickly became favorites and resulted in a strong local following.
In 1997, the Taste Buds -- whose fitting moniker refers to both their culinary interests and their longtime friendship -- introduced Zea Rotisserie & Grill, which has four locations in the New Orleans area. In 2006, they opened Semolina's Bistro Italia, a more upscale, designer version of Semolina with sleek, contemporary interiors and a broader selection of wines. "We describe it as Semolina on espresso," says Reggio.
Meanwhile, Semolina restaurants have their own renewed appeal, thanks to new menu offerings. "We're excited about the new life at Semolina," says Reggio. "We still have a core of great pasta dishes, but we also have more center-of-the-plate dishes like Veal Daub and Pork Milanese."
The Buds credit the success of their ventures to the fact that they bring complementary skills to the table and to the fact that they are still passionate about the restaurant business. They develop every new dish themselves and are committed to using fresh, quality ingredients, including indigenous favorites like crawfish. Semolina's Annual Crawfish Fest, now underway, is a draw to established mudbug devotees and novices alike. On March 30, festival fans also can enjoy samplings of the popular fare from Semolina's Bistro Italia and Zea Rotisserie at the Louisiana Restaurant Association's Sixth Annual Taste of the Town event at Lafreniere Park.
- Taste Buds chefs Gary Darling, Greg Reggio and Hans Limburg.