A BROTHERS BASED AND ALREADY DIVERSE RESTAURANT BUSINESS EMBRACES “SOMETHING NEW” AMONG ITS FLAVOR PROFILES

BY AMANDA McCOY • PHOTOS BY AMANDA DOMENECH

Mario Abitino, co-owner of Bay Ridge Mexican eatery Lobo Loco (“crazy wolf,” in Spanish), isn’t a stranger to the city’s volatile culinary landscape. The son of a seasoned restaurateur, Abitino and his brothers practically grew up in their Italian born father’s Brooklyn pizzeria, which opened its doors in 1974. Flash forward four decades and the Abitino Pizzeria nameplate has locations sprinkled all over Manhattan, along with two ancillary setups at JFK Airport. The family business also includes Uncle Mario’s Brick Oven Pizza and Draft Beer in the Theatre District and, until a couple years ago, a fine dining locale named Zitelli’s on Brooklyn’s Third Avenue. In 2016, the Abitino clan made the decision to close their Italian bistro and tackle a gustatory concept entirely new to them: Mexican fare.

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In a matter of weeks, Abitino and his brothers/business partners, Salvatore and Dominick, stripped Zitelli’s of its white tablecloth décor and splashed the interior with a bright color scheme. The dark wood and burgundy booths were replaced with aging barrels and reclaimed wooden tables (handmade and finished by the proprietors), and bistro lights and colorful wall decorations were placed throughout. In the coming weeks, pasta and gnocchi would become enchiladas and quesadillas, while vintage Chiantis were replaced with Sour Patch Margaritas and Gummy Bear Martinis. On a block where Italian bistros are aplenty, the relaxed eatery found its place by catering to families and younger crowds.

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“Before, when people came in for a table of four, it would cost a few hundred dollars. Now people come in with their families and their kids, they run around, and we might put sombreros on their heads. It’s a really fun atmosphere, and takes less of a monetary bite.”

While the atmosphere would be more relaxed than its predecessor, they’d still follow the same strict gastronomy standards instilled by the head of the Abitino clan: fresh, scratch made, in house recipes. In the early months, the brothers brought in a consultant to help with the transition in flavor profiles. They wanted a menu that was diverse but not overwhelming, offering the classics, but with a few inventive twists.

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Starters include shareables like guacamole, of course, and peppery queso, while spicier options like seasoned and fried calamari and Elote (Mexican street corn) are also on deck. Seven taco options are all served with diced onions and fresh cilantro, while heartier portions include all the favorites: quesadillas, enchiladas, chimichangas, et al. The owners tout the loaded burritos and fajitas as fan favorites, particularly the Lobo Supreme Fajita, which is served with a generous portions of steak, chicken, and shrimp. Sweet finishers include traditional Mexican churros, tres leches, and the sinful Choco Taco a fried shell served warm and topped with vanilla ice cream, Dulce de Leche and chocolate syrup, and whipped cream.

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In August of 2016, the menu and atmosphere were in place, and Lobo Loco opened its doors on a corner of Bay Ridge that was largely devoid of Mexican cuisine. For the trio of proprietors, navigating the waters of restaurant ownership is in their blood, so getting one off the ground in a short amount of time was the easy part, Abitino explained. One of the more difficult obstacles, to their surprise, was deciding upon the right name.

“We must have gone through about 100 of them,” remembered the co-owner. “When we had the Italian restaurant, there was this woman who would come in, and still comes in today, and she became a family friend. She called my brother one day and said ‘I got the name; you guys are all crazy. Lobo Loco!’ And that was it. That’s the one that stuck.”

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When asked about the secret to sustained success in an increasingly unstable field, the answer was disarmingly simple. “We’re very hands on. If there’s a problem or issue to solve, we take care of it ourselves. There’s always one of us here at all times.”

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And the entrepreneurs have no intentions of letting off the gas. They have plans to expand the fiesta beyond Brooklyn in the coming year, with a second location in the works for Staten Island.

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Lobo Loco
8530 3rd Avenue / 718.921.1234 / lobolocony.com