Miguel Carretero of Guido's Pizzeria and Tapas

May 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm

This is part one of Deborah Hyland's Chef's Choice profile of chef Miguel Carretero of Guido's Pizzeria and Tapas. Part two, a Q&A, is here. Part three, a recipe from Carretero, can be found here.

Miguel Carretero of Guido's Pizzeria and Tapas
Deborah Hyland

When most eighteen-year-olds were still popping zits and grousing about their parents, Miguel Carretero was opening his first restaurant, a small pizza parlor on Morganford. Twenty-three years, four locations and countless eighty-hour work weeks later, on a Saturday night the line to get into Guido's Pizzeria and Tapas (5046 Shaw Avenue, 314-771-4900) reaches to the sidewalk. Success, however, has not come without cost.

Finishing college took a back seat to the demands of being a chef and small-business owner. Plus, Carretero adds with a wry smile, "I'm single. You have to be married to [owning a restaurant] to a certain degree. You have to love it, but it takes over your life."

Fortunately, the Carretero family has always supported their son's career. Miguel, the youngest of three boys, was born in Madrid and moved to St. Louis at age two when his father came to work as a waiter at Alfonso Cervantes' short-lived Spanish restaurant downtown. When the restaurant folded after only six months, the Carreteros couldn't afford to pack everyone up and return to Spain.

Instead, the family began building deep connections in the St. Louis restaurant community. They settled in a two-family flat on Magnolia, where the Bommarito family (now well-known restaurateurs; back then immigrants like the Carreteros) lived upstairs. Miguel's father, Segundo Carretero, worked at the Chase Park Plaza for about year, then at Anthony's, where he was maitre d' for twenty years.

"My dad used to take me into Anthony's where he worked, and I used to watch everybody cook," Miguel Carretero remembers. "They used to let me do simple things when I was about twelve or thirteen." By age eighteen Carretero was managing a Cecil Whittaker's Pizzeria outpost and considering investing in a franchise of his own.

Concerned about the cost, Carretero bided his time. Then he spotted a small pizza joint on Morganford that was for sale and jumped at the opportunity. He paid $14,000 for it. "It was always our family's dream to open a Spanish restaurant. We tried twice but couldn't get a [Small Business Association] loan. The pizza place was just a way to get our foot in the door," he says now.

A year later Carretero opened a second location, then eventually a third in Affton. It wasn't all pizzas and cream, though. "We didn't own the buildings, plus I found myself spending all my time driving around in circles and couldn't focus on one place," Carretero says now.

In 2000 Carretero again was able to draw on his family's connections to longtime St. Louis restaurateurs: The late Josephine DeGregorio helped him find the current location for Guido's, on the Hill.

With the move came the opportunity to bring Spanish foods into the mix (though Guido's menu still features many Italian dishes). "St. Louis has become really diverse in the past fifteen years," says Carretero. "A lot of the Spanish items--, embutidos, jamón serrano, smelts -- weren't available" when he opened his first pizza place.

A year or two after the big move, Carretero got the chance to buy the four-family next door. He now lives upstairs and rents out the other three units, a living arrangement that lets him keep a close eye on Guido's. "I love being in the city, plus you have to be involved in the business," he says. "I don't think a manager, however much you pay them, is ever going to be as good as the owner."

Carretero put in a large garden with tomatoes, onions, green and banana peppers, parsley, basil, radishes and greens. Still, he admits, "With a restaurant this size, you'd have to have four acres of a garden to keep up with demand."

On the downside, living next door provides an excuse to let the restaurant consume all of his time. "If you want a 9-to-5 job and to be able to leave at 5, then restaurant work is not for you. Nor is owning a business," Carretero asserts. Just as quickly, he acknowledges, "I have no personal life."

At age 42, though, Carretero seems ready to reprioritize a bit. "I am more comfortable in the kitchen, but I've learned the importance of the front of the house, greeting the customers, et cetera," he says. He's also making an effort to get away from work more often, by going to the Lake of the Ozarks, hunting, or visiting the bocce club. Once a year he returns to Europe, to visit family in Madrid and to travel; this year he plans to tour the north of Spain.

Carretero also recently adopted Lola, an eight-week-old chocolate lab, who has forced even more reprioritizing. Although a new puppy seems to offer unconditional love, little Lola isn't entirely without demands of her own. Now Carretero has to leave the kitchen every two hours to take the puppy on walks around the neighborhood.

The fresh air, the walks and the dog have done him good, and it seems Miguel Carretero is finally ready to let go of at least a few of those 80-hour work weeks. "I'd like an exit plan," he says, "so I'm not doing this when I'm 75."