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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009 8 years ago

Dining companion

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

George Armstrong may not be able to pronounce Mikhail Baryshnikov’s name, but he does remember where the famous Russian ballet dancer sat last month when he ate at Treviso Restaurant during the Ringling International Arts Festival.

Armstrong, general manager of Treviso at the Ringling Museum, also remembers that Baryshnikov dined at the museum restaurant twice during the five-day arts festival; each time arriving with a party of 11 people at 10 p.m. and ordering, among other things, the restaurant’s rack of lamb.

“The rack of lamb is my favorite, too,” says Armstrong, a soft-spoken Bermuda native and Meadows resident. “Although, my mother and her three sisters were here the other day and all they could talk about was the chicken breast saltimbocca.”

Armstrong, like many people who work in upscale Sarasota restaurants, can rattle off endless insider accounts ripe with kitchen gossip and the occasional celebrity sighting. Even Treviso cook Jeffrey Trefry, the former executive chef at Café L’Europe on St. Armands Circle, has a wealth of juicy stories: like the time he cooked for Tom Selleck during the Florida Winefest and Auction.

Armstrong started his career at an Austin, Texas, seafood buffet, before arriving in Sarasota in 1987 with a team of restaurant managers looking to open a “Crocodile Dundee”-esque eatery in the Sarasota Quay.

The business, Dundee’s on the Bay, was open only two years before a similarly themed franchise by the name of Outback Steakhouse opened its headquarters in Tampa.

Armstrong, however, remained in Florida, working as the general manager of DaRuMa Japanese Steakhouse, in Naples, and, later, downtown Sarasota’s Silver Cricket, now Horse Feathers Grill and Lounge.

Treviso, says Armstrong, is an entirely different gig.

For one, the restaurant is owned by Guest Services, a corporation with restaurants in tourist destinations across the country, including Mount Rushmore. For 90 years, the Washington, D.C.,-based company has fed the U.S. Secret Service, Pentagon and Congress.

“People don’t realize we’re our own entity,” Armstrong says. “The perception is that it’s all Ringling back here, which is fine, because we use it to our benefit, especially when we’re trying to sell weddings.”

Armstrong has been on a mission to increase Treviso’s wedding-catering business since he was hired two years ago to manage the Italian restaurant, which opened in 2006 inside the museum’s visitor’s pavilion.

Thanks to the movie, “Great Expectations,” which was filmed at the Cà d’Zan mansion in 1997, the 66-acre Ringling estate sees some of the state’s most lavish destination weddings.

Last May, Armstrong catered a rehearsal dinner with a $40,000 bar bill. The groom owned a Texas barge-building company and would fly in on his private Lear jet every month to taste entrées.

“We went through eight cases of champagne at $150 per bottle,” he says, shaking his head.

Perhaps the best job perk, however, is the fact that the restaurant’s most loyal patrons are Sarasota Ballet and Asolo Repertory Theatre audiences, who typically grab dinner before evening performances. And, because most shows start at 8 p.m., it’s not unusual for Treviso staff to clock out at 9 p.m. — a rarity in the restaurant industry.

“When the shows are about to begin, a bell rings and everyone files out of here like there’s a fire,” Armstrong says. “It’s nice to get home early on a Friday night.”

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]


• Treviso grows its own organic herbs in a sprawling outdoor planter box that kitchen staff must trim every day. 
• The restaurant is named for the Italian province, Treviso, in which the village of Asolo is located.
• According to George Armstrong, the kitchen prepares between 500 and 600 lunches a day during the months of February, March and April.
• Treviso isn’t the only restaurant at the Ringling Museum. The Banyan Café is located across from the Circus Museum and offers less expensive grab-and-go snacks.  
• The restaurant changes its menu once a week so that frequent theater-goers won’t get bored.

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