Schenectady County

Former Cornell’s chef taking over Rotterdam restaurant

The owner of a popular Italian restaurant in Rotterdam is selling the business to the former top che
Chef Armondo Cioccke and Joanne Aragosa in the dining area of the Villa Tuscan Grille in Rotterdam Thursday, November 19, 2015.
Chef Armondo Cioccke and Joanne Aragosa in the dining area of the Villa Tuscan Grille in Rotterdam Thursday, November 19, 2015.

The owner of a popular Italian restaurant in Rotterdam is selling the business to the former top chef of another popular Italian restaurant in Schenectady.

Peter Guidarelli, owner of Villa Tuscan Grille, is selling the restaurant to Armondo Cioccke, who previously served as head chef and manager of Cornell’s restaurant on North Jay Street in Schenectady’s Little Italy neighborhood.

Villa Tuscan Grille has been in Guidarelli’s family for 30 years. Guidarelli has owned the business himself for about eight years but decided to sell it because he was “stretched way too thin,” he said.

“I have so much on my plate,” said Guidarelli, a well-known Republican who previously served on the Schenectady City Council, County Legislature and ran for Schenectady mayor. “I work for the ARC [a nonprofit serving people with developmental disabilities], do government relations, consult with a few companies and run political campaigns. The restaurant business really needs full-time attention.”

Cioccke started his new role as head chef at Villa six weeks ago. Cioccke and Guidarelli are in the process of finalizing a deal for Cioccke to be the sole owner of Villa.

Cioccke, who was a chef at Cornell’s for more than a decade, said he joined the restaurant’s competitor after a misunderstanding with Cornell’s owners.

“We had an agreement, we shook on it, for me to take ownership of Cornell’s,” he said. “Once the word came down that the casino was coming, they pulled back and said, ‘Why are we selling it to him?’ I knew it was time to go.”

Cornell’s part-owner John Hume III said Cioccke’s recollection of the agreement to own Cornell’s is not entirely accurate. He declined to discuss specifics.

“Our recollection and perception as three people of what was said and done that day is different from his,” said Hume, who co-owns Cornell’s with his wife, Connie, and their friend George Ryon. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Hume is the former editor and publisher of The Daily Gazette. The three bought Cornell’s from longtime owner JoAnn Cornell Aragosa in 2011.

The Humes and Ryon purchased the restaurant when it was on the verge of financial collapse, with the property accruing hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes and interest.

Aragosa was the owner of Cornell’s when it opened in 1997 on Van Vranken Avenue on the city’s Northside. In 2003 the restaurant moved to its current location on North Jay Street.

Aragosa is also leaving Cornell’s and joining Cioccke at Villa. She said the move is bittersweet but she plans to bring all of the Cornell family recipes with her.

“Armondo worked day and night as if the restaurant was his own,” she said. “As soon as the agreement was withdrawn, his motivation was deflated. I’m so happy for him that this wonderful opportunity presented itself. My work at Cornell’s was slowly being diminished to the point where I felt like I was no longer valued.”

Hume said he has since replaced Cioccke with a new head chef — Jake Zachow, formerly of Wheatfields Restaurant & Bar in Saratoga, an Italian bistro.

Changes are underway at Cornell’s since Cioccke’s departure, including kitchen renovations and changes to the menu.

“We have introduced seasonal specials, which is a little bit of a different concept than Armondo was using,” Hume said. “We’re doing more farm-to-restaurant, and emphasizing it.”

The menu at Cornell’s was cut down from 58 entries to about 12 to 15 dishes, he said. Hume said he hopes the change will minimize confusion for customers.

“There were just too many options,” he said. “Some things were left off the new menu. There must have been six to eight different kinds of veal dishes and a similar number of chicken dishes.”

At Villa, Cioccke has made renovations to the dining room and plans to bring the Cornell’s flavor to the Tuscan restaurant. Cioccke said since he joined Villa, business has tripled.

“It will be similar to Cornell’s with steak and seafood, like salmon and Chilean sea bass,” he said. “It’s still that high-end menu. We still have the classics, like chicken parmigiana, veal cutlets and pizza takeout. I’m just starting the four-course meals this week.”

Cioccke said the kitchen at Villa now has new equipment and the dining area, which seats 75 to 80 people, has been upgraded with “more of a Tuscan look” with new chairs, silverware and tablecloths.

The restaurant also has new hours and is open from Monday to Saturday beginning at 4 p.m. He added that the restaurant would be open on Sundays sometimes for special events.

Cioccke said the response at Villa has been positive.

“We have an incredible following and an incredible group of friends who came and supported us,” he said. “What’s great about this place is it brings back Cornell’s on Van Vranken Avenue, where friendships were cultivated. Peter and his family have carved out an incredible reputation in this city and restaurant.”

Guidarelli said he is pleased with the recent changes at Villa and that he’s happy the restaurant will still have a family-friendly feel.

“We’ve had so much positive feedback,” he said. “It was very tastefully done. For a business that has been in our family for 30 years now, it means a lot that the tradition of a family-owned restaurant will live on.”

Guidarelli remains the owner of Villa until the deal is sealed with Cioccke. Once that happens, Guidarelli said he plans to still be involved with Villa, helping with business and marketing.

Villa seats up to 80 people in the main dining area, plus up to 30 people at the bar and 20 to 30 people outside. Four-course dinners are now offered on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The restaurant will also be open on Christmas Eve this year.

Reach Gazette reporter Haley Viccaro at 395-3114, [email protected] or @HRViccaro on Twitter.

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