Winchester’s Gina Caligiuri Kurban, 57, grew up as one of 10 kids in an Italian family from Buffalo, where most conversations happened around the dinner table. After studying in China and working as an English teacher for non-native speakers in Boston, she became the majority owner of Aceituna Grill, serving fast-casual Mediterranean meals in the Back Bay, Cambridge, the Financial District, and the Seaport, spotlighting her Lebanese husband’s family recipes. Her son, A.J., is now the CEO. She focuses on catering and hiring, particularly at their new Newbury Street branch.
What led you down a culinary path?
I moved here when I met my husband in 1989. My husband is from Lebanon, and he’s a dentist. But he was not thrilled with the food scene in Boston, and he felt like it was really lacking good Mediterranean foods, specifically Lebanese. He just thought: “Gee, we should open a restaurant.”
At the time, we had really small children. But we did do it in 2004, in Kendall Square. And then our son got involved when he was in college — doing projects in marketing and accounting, and he chose to use our restaurant as one of his projects. He really got into it and decided he wanted to try to expand our business. He was persistent, and we believed in him. We just opened our fourth location on Newbury Street.
I pretty much grew up in restaurants from a very young age. I come from a big Italian family in Buffalo. I actually started working in a concession stand with all my siblings and my father in the basement of a church in inner-city Buffalo. In high school and college, I worked in Greek diners and Italian restaurants. I always loved hospitality.
How did you meet your husband?
Well, that’s an interesting story! He dated my sister. I was living in China at the time. And they met — they really didn’t date, but they went to a wedding together, back in the days when you could just bring a plus-one to a wedding. You can’t do that anymore unless you’re engaged.
I was coming to Boston for a doctor’s appointment, actually. And my sister said, “Oh, you have to go out with Andrew. You’re going to love him!” By our second date, we already knew we were getting married.
How did being one of 10 kids influence your career? It must help you now, working in busy restaurants.
Definitely. On the one hand, my poor mother, God rest her soul. She cooked every night, and she cooked for a minimum of 12 people. Cooking was not her thing. She didn’t care about it at all. She just had to put food on the table. I did not grow up with a very sophisticated palate, to say the least.
But we did all have dinner together, every single night. My dad would come home from work at 6 o’clock, and at 6:10, we were at the table eating, all of us, and it was loud and fun. That definitely shaped me. I’ve always been attracted to people in conversations and learning different things, usually over food at a big table.
When my son got more involved and decided he wanted to expand the restaurant, he said, “Mom, I really need you to help us.” And I said, “The only way I’m going to do it is if I can be part of the hiring process. I want to hire refugees, immigrants, and people from other vulnerable communities. I don’t need this in my life, to open another restaurant! But if I can do that, it would be more meaningful to me.”
And that’s what I did. That’s really how I got back involved in the restaurant. It was very, very important to me to hire people from vulnerable communities.
How do you find staff?
Well, there is a lot of word of mouth. We have wonderful, loyal, dedicated staff. I would say almost all of them are coming from war-torn areas, just like my husband did when he came from Lebanon.
I work most closely with Jewish Vocational Services. I told them that I really, really wanted to work with refugees and immigrants, and they help with that.
It was a little difficult at the beginning; there were people who had worked for us from Lebanon for a very long time, who didn’t really see a common thread to hiring a refugee from Haiti, let’s say. And I said: “You have more in common with these people than you can imagine.”
It was a little hard, and I worked with them, because I do have the background in teaching English to speakers of other languages. Through JVS, we offered English classes, and I worked with them to help them understand the culture, which can be very different.
We did have some problems with customers saying, “That person can’t even look me in the eye” or something like that. And I said, you know, “This is someone who’s just recently come from a horrific situation after hurricanes or earthquakes.” What’s wonderful is, our customers then came to know that this is something we did, and empathy really grew in our Aceituna family and among our clientele.
What’s your take on the Boston food scene these days?
It’s come a long way. I arrived in Boston in 1989. It was a small food scene at the time. Coming from Buffalo, Boston to me was exotic — but my husband was like, “Oh my gosh, we need better food here.”
Now, it’s really exploded and can compete with every major city. I don’t need to go anywhere else to get better food.
Where do you love to eat when you’re not eating at your own restaurant?
My favorite local spot is Angelo’s in Stoneham. You can find me there almost every weekend. It’s a small family place, and I get the same thing every time: fresh pasta with tomato sauce. It’s very, very basic, but it’s definitely very good. It’s what I grew up eating: pasta and sauce, several times a week.
On our birthdays, my nonna would ask each of us what we wanted. We could choose, and it was always going to be fresh pasta. Sometimes I’d get just plain cheese ravioli, which she would make with plain tomato sauce. That was being completely spoiled! It was just a great part of childhood.
What’s your favorite food vice?
I’m not a snacker, but I can have fresh pasta every day of the week.
Biggest food pet peeve?
I’m allergic to mushrooms, and there are a lot of things that have mushrooms in them. That’s really hard. My husband loves mushrooms, and I’m allergic. So I would have to say that if restaurants aren’t very strict about allergy issues, then I have a real problem with that.
What is your favorite dish on your own menu?
Oh my gosh. I really do eat there just about every day. I would say, I have tabbouleh every day. I have shawarma every day, and falafel. And I love fried cauliflower. Those are some of my favorites. And the hummus and baba ganoush is out of this world. So I usually have a mix of those things on my plate. I just had it last night!