Meet Nicola Di Nino: a professore d’italiano at Columbia for the past four years, he also helps run an authentic Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side called “Il Violino.” In a manner of speaking, Di Nino is living a double life, or “la doppia vita.” As both a professor and a restaurateur, he aims to push aside inauthentic Italian products and experiences to deliver the real Italy to both his customers and students.
“Il Violino has been around for 30 years, making it one of the oldest Italian restaurants in the Upper West Side,” Di Nino said. “It is a family restaurant, which doesn’t refer to the portion size but to the idea that we welcome all our customers as family.” Eighty percent of the restaurant’s ingredients are imported directly from Italy, including its selection of wine from the country’s 22 regions.
“I noticed when I moved here [from Venice in 2009] that there were many inauthentic products and experiences under the label of Italian. I aim to show people what really is Italian,” said Di Nino, who manages the trattoria with his cousin, Roberto Mariani.
The majority of the restaurant’s recipes have been passed down through Nicola’s family, which still owns two restaurants in Venice.
Di Nino said that he also carries these authentic values into the classroom by creating an atmosphere where students build relationships to one another and to the country. “My idea is that I not only teach the Italian language but also Italian culture,” Di Nino said. Before coming to Columbia, Di Nino taught in Italy at the University of Venice, an Italian high school, and the University of Trieste, a teacher’s college in northeastern Italy.
The professor-restaurateur explained the difficulties of managing both jobs. “All of my life is dedicated to these businesses. In the morning, I’m at Columbia teaching my class, preparing materials, which is a very demanding job. At the same time, I sometimes feel like I’m married to the restaurant.” He explained that customers only see the finished dishes and ambiance of the restaurant. “Ninety-nine percent of the restaurant involves many other factors such as hiring new staff, creating and editing the menu, dealing with shippers, and dealing with many other factors,” he said.
While Di Nino maintains his restaurant’s authenticity, he explained that it’s a difficult task in the restaurant business. “Unfortunately, we often have to adjust dishes to American tastes,” he said.
“Il Violino” also struggles as a small, family-owned trattoria in the recession.
“People are eating at home a lot, and if they go out they eat much less,” he said.
But a bigger problem that Di Nino sees is a tendency toward larger brand names in American culture. “Many [New Yorkers] eat at big-name restaurants,” he said. “In Europe, we have those restaurants, but people don’t eat there. They go to tiny, family-owned places where the food is grown in the backyard.”
But there are those who appreciate what “Il Violino” and Di Nino stand for.
“The magic sentence for me is when a customer leaves and says, ‘Oh it was just like in Italy.’ Then I know they really understand what we are offering to them,” he said.
Columbia students enjoy a 25 percent discount at “Il Violino” Monday through Thursday with a valid CUID.