Bugatti’s Ristorante in West Linn is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
These days, Sam Nicolls is busy cooking up handmade pasta and gourmet seafood dishes. As Bugatti’s Ristorante’s new head chef, he’s hoping to provide his guests with not only good food, but a break from the challenges of everyday life.
“I want people to leave the dining room and go home feeling really good about life itself,” he says.
Nicolls, who joined the Bugatti’s Ristorante team in September, is one of two new additions who are shaping the restaurant’s future — seasoned restaurant manager Paolo Ruffi came on staff as general manager in August.
The two bring a wealth of culinary and service experience to the restaurant — and Ruffi says sales are already up 20 percent since September.
The West Linn restaurant, in its 25th year, serves fresh, locally sourced Italian food in a fine dining atmosphere.
Love of the kitchen
Nicolls traces his love of the kitchen back to his childhood in Southern Connecticut. He and his mother set out to learn to cook together.
“We both got books from the library and started cooking and watching Julia Child in the early 1970s,” he says.
After high school, he spent a year studying hotel and restaurant management — but he soon realized that he wanted to get back into the kitchen. So he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and earned his culinary arts degree from California Culinary Academy.
Nicolls worked in several French and Italian restaurants — including Masa’s restaurant in San Francisco, under James Beard Award-winning chef Julián Serrano — before settling in Southeast Portland in 1998 to start a family. He now has two daughters, ages 12 and 16.
After the birth of his second child, Nicolls stayed home to raise his kids in 2004. But in 2007, he was invited to travel to Foligno, Italy, to study Umbrian cuisine in two different restaurants for four months.
“I’ve learned that Portlanders really love Italian cooking,” he says. “The opportunity to live and work (in Foligno) was one I couldn’t pass up.”
When he returned, he worked at Ciao Vito in Northeast Portland and Mama Mia Trattoria and The Heathman Restaurant in downtown Portland before arriving at Bugatti’s.
Nicolls says he hopes to use his background in Italian cooking to “lead the local restaurant-goers to a more authentic Italian style of cooking.”
He plans to feature fresh, handmade pasta in select dishes and emphasize local berries, shellfish, seafood and meats — particularly lamb, beef and pork.
He’s looking forward to “the opportunity to take what is already a very busy restaurant and bring regional Italian cooking to the Northwest, using the bounty of the Northwest.”
Ruffi, who grew up in Sardinia, Italy, began his restaurant career studying at Les Roches International School of Hotel Management near Geneva, Switzerland.
When he moved to New York in 1992, he started out as the assistant general manager of the iconic Tavern on the Green in Central Park.
He later worked for James Beard Award-winning chef Lydia Shire, served as assistant to the CEO of the Bice Restaurant Group, and then became the director of food operations at Rockefeller Center.
In restaurant management, Ruffi says he enjoys “the challenge to succeed, and the possibility of interfacing with so many interesting people,” including his bosses and guests in the restaurants. “It’s a very interesting life.”
In 2006, he moved to Oregon with his wife, who was from the Northwest. He worked for several years in the Portland and Seattle restaurant scenes before receiving a phone call one day from Bice Restaurant Group founder Roberto Ruggeri.
The restaurateur, who has opened restaurants in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris, Palm Beach, Dubai and Tokyo, had purchased the Oregon Electric Station in Eugene and was looking for someone to supervise the restaurant’s remodel and reopening.
So Ruffi moved to Eugene to oversee the project for two years — but he was adamant about returning to the Portland area before the start of the 2015-2016 school year. His daughter was entering her last year of high school, and he wanted to spend it with her.
“I love kids,” he says. “I love to get to know them and what they do.”
He says that during his year at home, his daughter’s friends would frequent the house to sample the food he made.
Now, with his daughter graduated and off to college, Ruffi says he was thrilled to join the Bugatti’s team.
He hopes to celebrate the restaurant’s history in the coming year by occasionally reviving favorite items from the original menu, and by offering cuisine from varying regions of Italy on certain nights.
“We don’t see that many restaurants that keep their doors open for so long, so I think it’s really remarkable,” he says of Bugatti’s.
In the meantime, he says, he plans to continue the Bugatti’s tradition of welcoming service and cuisine.
“We’re trying our best to give the best service possible so that people feel at home,” Ruffi says. “The people who come here, they’re not ‘customers,’ they’re not ‘clients,’ they’re guests.”
Editor’s note: Robert B. Pamplin Jr. owns both Bugatti’s and the Pamplin Media Group, parent company of the West Linn Tidings and the Lake Oswego Review.
Contact Kelsey O’Halloran at 503-636-1281 ext. 101 or firstname.lastname@example.org.