Addio, the legendary Aldo Girolo of Hildebrand
Aldo Girolo, one of the original Italian restaurateurs in Cape Town, took over one of the city’s oldest establishments and reshaped it with his wife, Linda, into a booming family business. Last month Linda died in hospital through complications from Covid-19. Aldo died a few days later in the same ward.
Hildebrand was the kind of restaurant that doesn’t exist any more. Each table would have not only its own waiter but its own wine steward. Diners would be served by men in bow ties and black shoes that shone. In a display of dinner theatre, dishes such as tagliatelle carbonara and zabaione al marsala would be prepared at the table.
And in the front, but really everywhere, was Aldo Girolo. “He was one of the best front of house people I’ve ever come across in my very long career,” says Mary Mcleary, whose combined stints working at Aldo’s restaurants and in her own have kept her in the hospitality industry for 45 years. “What the customer wanted, the customer got. People came back for Aldo.”
“He was always diplomatic in his approach to clients even when they were unreasonable and demanding,” says Aldo and Linda’s daughter, Lisa. “He came from a five-star hospitality environment overseas and he brought that training through in his approach locally.”
Former Mount Nelson executive chef, Garth Stroebel, says Aldo was extremely determined to make it. “You certainly had to work your ass off in those days and Aldo was one of those guys who certainly worked his ass off. I do think that he was a bit of a perfectionist in a way and I think that he wasn’t the easiest guy to work with, but he certainly made it and just by the mere fact that he’d made it in those days shows you how determined he was.
“There are not many restaurants these days that you can say have stood the test of time,” adds Stroebel. This was not only because Aldo could remember people and always made them feel special, but simply because he and partner Colombo Bagatta were always there. When Aldo took over Hildebrand completely, his wife Linda stepped into the back of house role previously occupied by Bagatta. “That makes a really good partnership in a restaurant: when one of the owners is in the front and one of the owners is in the back.”
“My dad couldn’t have done the restaurant without my mom,” says Linda and Aldo’s son, Enrico. He and Lisa were put to work there during school holidays and some weekends from the time they were barely teenagers.
“My dad knew parts of the restaurant business backwards, but when it came to admin, communication, marketing, design, human resources, that was not his strength. He was very good with ideas and high-level stuff, but then when it came to translating that into action, he didn’t have the tools to do that unless it was in the kitchen, in the front of house or dealing with a client. And that’s where my mom had to come in and take on those roles.”
With no systems in place to allow for remote management or checking in, Enrico adds, Hildebrand was structured completely around their management style which, put simply, was them being there.
When Lisa returned from an overseas stint and asked for a job, Aldo made her start at square one, despite that she had already worked her way up to hostess when she’d previously worked at the restaurant. “It was part of the way we lived. It didn’t matter who you were; everyone mucked in. And that’s a lesson for life,” she says. That meant Aldo, too, was moving tables, resetting, fixing, doing. “My dad was a stickler for perfection and demanded high standards.”
That grassroots guiding principle, Enrico says, was informed by his dad’s view that if you knew how all the jobs worked, you could fill in for others and you could supervise people better because you understood what the roles required.
“And then also when it comes to managing everything, you get a much clearer understanding of where the gaps and opportunities and threats are in the business. It just makes you a much more rounded, hands-on operator when you actually understand how the system works from doing it yourself.”
Born in 1938 in Andalo Valtellino, a tiny village in the far north of Italy, Aldo and his two brothers had to leave school as adolescents to get jobs. Their father was part of the Carabinieri and travelled around Italy in his policing duties. Their mother worked in a bar for a period and struggled to support them. Aldo spent time in an orphanage.
“My dad always said he had no opportunities and he could relate to a lot of people in South Africa who grow up in difficult circumstances because that’s what his life was,” Lisa says.
Aldo started his working life cleaning kitchen floors at the age of 12, learning the restaurant trade literally from the ground up. From bartender to commis chef to demi chef to chef de rang to head waiter to restaurant manager, he left Italy in his early 20s to continue ricocheting around Europe serving lords and ladies – including Princess Margaret – at one upmarket establishment after the next.
In 1970, Tony Bagatta – whose brother Colombo would be Aldo’s future business partner at the Hildebrand in Cape Town’s city centre – went to recruit Aldo for the banqueting manager role at the five-star Hotel Heerengracht in Cape Town. The hotel was to open later that year. At the time, Aldo was the banqueting manager of the Angel Hotel in Cardiff.
“Mr Girolo had been very highly recommended to me and I personally went to Cardiff, Wales to engage his services,” Bagatta wrote in a reference letter dated 11 November, 1973, when Aldo left the Heerengracht after a three-year stretch there.
“It is with regret that I learn of his departure for South Africa,” wrote manager of the Angel Hotel, J.W. Levack, in a reference letter dated September, 1970, after Aldo’s three-year stretch there. “I should be delighted to re-engage him at any time.”
Irish teenager Tony Yates had been working at the Angel Hotel for two years. Off-duty he placed bets on the horses. In the bookie office he would always see a man in a tuxedo “like he’d been scrubbed”. “He’d come in, speak to nobody, do what he had to do and then he was gone.” At work one day in 1967, Yates and the other waiters were informed of the arrival of a new banqueting manager. “And who was it? Only that man that I used to see, which was Aldo.”
Three years later, Yates and an Italian waiter followed Aldo to Cape Town for a two-year contract at the Heerengracht. The Italian waiter went back after six months. Yates went on to work with Aldo for 34 years and still lives in the city.
At the Heerengracht, Aldo met the woman who would become his personal and business partner. Linda Jacobson worked for a tour company and had a function there. She was 10 years his junior and by all accounts elegant, refined and beautiful – the middle daughter of a “prim and proper” English mother and a prominent Cape Town urologist father. Aldo was, equally by all accounts, suave, charming and gregarious.
In 1973, Aldo opened his first restaurant. “Mr Markovitz persuaded Aldo to leave the Heerengracht and go to the Ambassador Hotel in Bantry Bay. Mr Markovitz gave him free rein and of course it was the best restaurant in Cape Town. You couldn’t get into Aldo’s,” says Yates.
“Mr Markovitz” was the late Leon Markovitz, who owned the Ambassador with well-known Cape Town lawyer Abe Swersky. Markovitz knew Tony Bagatta, and knew of Aldo from him. Neil Markovitz, Leon’s son and current chief executive of the Newmark hotel group, says that as a 16-year-old he would make the Irish coffees at the tables at Aldo’s Restaurant.
“It was one of the few hotels where the restaurant supported the hotel, it did so well. It was precedent-setting in its way. There are very few restaurants in Cape Town that were of that quality,” Neil says. Of Aldo he says “there was no doubt who was in charge. He ran a really tight ship and was such a detailed restaurant operator. Back then there weren’t that many”.
At the end of 1980, Aldo sold his share in Aldo’s and went into partnership with Colombo Bagatta at Hildebrand Restaurant. Hildebrand was about to be moved from its basement position in Electricity House (now the Southern Sun Cape Sun on Strand Street) to a first floor venue in the Old Mutual Centre on the corner of Strand and St George’s streets, before it became a pedestrian mall.
Yates was by now head waiter at the Heerengracht and Aldo hired him to be the restaurant manager at Hildebrand. Nellgwynne Hickey, who worked in all three Hildebrand properties over the course of almost 40 years, says the basement location was like a taverna – elegant, mostly locals. “It was a status symbol to be seen at Hildebrand on a Saturday night.”
The second city centre location had a more relaxed atmosphere and was frequented by businessmen at lunchtime. “That restaurant was perfect – it was the place to go. It was packed with influential people,” says Mcleary, who was a customer there and later worked on the admin side with Linda at the Waterfront.
At the Waterfront, where Hildebrand was moved in 1995, there was a focus on returning foreign visitors and attracting overseas tour groups with specially designed and priced three-course menus. “I can surely say that Aldo was instrumental in doing a lot for the Western Province tourist trade,” says Hickey.
Three years before Hildebrand closed in town and reopened at the Waterfront, the Girolos opened Aldo’s Restaurant at the Waterfront in the main shopping mall, where Belthazar is situated now. It was a much more casual, pasta-and-pizza version of its predecessor at the Ambassador. They sold Aldo’s a handful of years later because the size of Hildebrand at the Waterfront was not conducive to personal supervision.
Lisa and Enrico say that when Colombo retired after an enduring and successful partnership with Aldo in town – along with Colombo’s wife, Yolanda, who contributed to the running of the business too – Linda took his place and their family lifestyle changed considerably. While Aldo would take a month off at the old Hildebrand for family holidays in Italy, he and Linda would now take separate holidays. Each worked a six-day week with separate days off to ensure one of them was always at the restaurant.
“Linda kept immaculate records; a perfectionist as well,” says Mcleary. “And Aldo had such a great reputation. Don’t get me wrong, he was a hard boss to work for sometimes, but everybody respected him. She was introvert, he was extrovert.”
Another of Mcleary’s former colleagues, Lynn Govender, started working as a 19-year-old at Hildebrand at the Waterfront and left when she was 30. “I worked all my school life in casual jobs but I don’t have any tertiary education, so basically Hildebrand was my university. I went in one person and came out a completely different person.”
She worked a six-day week in turns as a cashier, hostess, receptionist and reservations manager. “Aldo and Linda worked hard for their business. They definitely wanted to leave a legacy and I think people respected that. I respected them for that. But it didn’t come without its trials. Like everybody in their workplace, we’d have our little disagreements or arguments but they were very open-minded and they’d sit down and say, what can we do to make it better. They had a connection to each of their staff.”
Now that they have two children, Govender attributes her and her husband’s ability to juggle work and family life to observing the Girolo family dynamic. She also credits her husband Jeremy’s current role as the general manager of a hotel partly to his early work experience as a functions waiter at Hildebrand.
She left Hildebrand a year after the Girolos sold the restaurant to Tourvest. “I left because the whole personality that they had put into the place was just wiped out. When the new owners took over, for me, there was just a lack of warmth, a lack of people sense.”
Similarly, Markovitz said when Aldo left the Ambassador in 1980, the restaurant “lost its way. Aldo really held it together”.
Part of the reason Aldo and Linda sold Hildebrand in 2010 was that neither Lisa nor Enrico wanted to take it over. “Restaurateuring is a lifestyle, it’s not a job,” Lisa says. “And for my parents, it was that. Their life was their work.”
“It’s not a lifestyle that I wanted to have,” agrees Enrico. “And I couldn’t see a way of running a restaurant of that size with that kind of history any other way.” DM/TGIFood
Lisa and Enrico will take Aldo and Linda’s ashes to Andalo Valtellino in Italy where they will be stored in a memorial wall in the village graveyard, alongside the ashes of Aldo’s parents and two brothers. To be informed of the upcoming memorial services in Cape Town, please send an email to [email protected]
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