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    Tuesday, November 28, 2023

    Andiamo! Mike Corso’s path from baseball to ‘nailing the meatball’

    Mystic — Here are some articles of faith about Italian food:

    Its disciples are hard markers.

    Olive Garden doesn’t qualify.

    And as one wiseguy said, “the problem with Italian food is that five or six days later, you’re hungry again.”

    Among our newest forays into the cuisine is Andiamo, on the site of the old Friendly’s in Mystic, run by Mike Corso, Ledyard class of 1998, one of the most colorful former high school athletes in our region’s history. Corso’s competitive spirit has morphed from baseball, soccer and basketball and straight into meatballs.

    “I had a reputation in my playing days,” Corso was saying one day last week. “A little fiery.”

    And now Corso has adopted a similar disposition aimed at food.

    “Come try our meatballs,” Corso said. “I promise you we will give your grandmother a challenge. One of the first things we did was nail the meatball. That's all I care about. Nail the meatball when it's first made, but nail the meatball when it's been sitting in a steel pan for three hours and it doesn't get dry.”

    Corso has become the Chief Operating Office for Cannonball Management, a den of deliciousness that also oversees Rio Salado, Taquerio and Jealous Monk. Cannonball owner Bill Middleton has a few home runs on his hands here.

    Corso is the friendly face frequently flitting about Andiamo, tending to this and that. That’s because in the food business, Corso has done the Johnny Cash thing. He’s been everywhere, man.

    “I started with salad prep at Steak Loft when I was 16,” Corso said. “The summer of my senior year at Central (Connecticut) I wound up getting a job opportunity at Mohegan Sun to manage Lucky’s Lounge. It hasn’t stopped.”

    Well, perhaps it paused.

    “I moved to Washington DC and did mortgages for a while. Ever see the movie ‘The Big Short?’ I got lured into doing mortgages during that time because it was the wild wild west,” Corso said. “Then the bubble burst. So I got back into restaurants and I worked in New York City for a few years. The group I worked for had a few well established restaurants, which was really a formidable time. I learned everything.”

    Corso came to his Robert Frost moment sometime later — two roads diverged in a yellow wood — and decided he would follow food, rather than mortgages or a potential gig selling pharmaceuticals. His wife worked in central Connecticut, resulting in Corso managing Max Fish in Glastonbury for a time. Then he met Middleton.

    “We linked up in 2017. It was just the Jealous Monk then and it was teetering on not knowing its identity,” Corso said. “We teamed up and kind of switched it. We've been off and running ever since.”

    Andiamo, which means “let’s go” in Italian, is bright and spacious, highlighted by a horseshoe bar big enough to have its own four-wheel drive. The food, Corso said, is what Italian should be: Simple, solid, consistent. Let Corso explain:

    “We've always talked about doing Italian. Bill comes from Pittsburgh, where there's a high Italian population,” Corso said. “So his original idea came from a place that was nearby where he grew up. And it was just an old-school sauce joint. Those really are the words that came out of his mouth when we got this idea.

    “My whole family's from Brooklyn. I'm an Italian American that has a rich history in Brooklyn and Long Island and all things Italian. So I grew up with everything that we're producing here. Our corporate chef (Ken Arnone) is an Italian guy from Staten Island. He comes down a couple times a month. Between the three of us, we think of authentic comfort food. Italian is nothing too fancy. Think of your grandmother's on a Sunday or an old-school kind of red sauce joint in New York City. Really good sauce. Really good meatballs.

    “You can't have meatballs that are delicious one day and dry the other day. We want to give them authentic, consistent Italian food in a nice setting. That’s what helps drive overall consistency with customers. Is the sauce consistent? Are your meatballs consistent? Can your martini be consistent? Do you have cold beer? Can you not pour flat beer? Can you give smiles to the people on the way in and way out?”

    Corso can’t possibly ask an employee to do something he hasn’t. It has inspired a friendly staff.

    “The restaurant business is very transient,” he said. “You know, you don't get many people coming out of college, saying ‘I'm going into restaurants.’ You have college kids working as summer servers. You don't get career restaurant people. But we've been really fortunate in this area, especially to hold on to I would say 80 percent of our staff long term. You build some stability within an organization by treating people well. The culture starts there. I started in the back of the house of a salad prep kid. I was a cook. I was a bartender.”

    Andiamo, like Cannonball’s other three eateries, offers ample parking, which is more valuable than a lung in Mystic. The customer base is growing.

    “All four of our establishments have parking lots. It's huge. If you want to go to downtown Mystic on a Friday night, you have to decide whether you want to pay for parking or how far can you walk?” he said. “Do you have a handicapped person in your car? Parking is huge. Convenience is huge. That's the world we live in.

    “Mystic’s been very good to us. We have a local base that frequents all of our establishments. Treat your locals. It's all about the locals. You coming a few times a month with your friends matters more to us than the transient customers that are here for three months. What are you going to do in the winter when they're not here?”

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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