THIS NEW RESTAURANT TAKES INSPIRATION FROM NORTHEASTERN SPAIN’S CATALONIA FOR ITS MENU OF TAPAS AND TRADITIONAL DISHES LIKE PAELLA, CHURRASCO STEAK, AND ROASTED PIG
BY JESSICA JONES GORMAN • PHOTOS BY AMESSÉ PHOTOGRAPHY
After 22 years of crafting Italian cuisine at Italianissimo, in Staten Island’s South Beach, Franco Ortega figured it was time for a change.
“Italianissimo is my dream, the center of my heart,” the chef said. “But for a long time, people have been asking me if I’d ever explore another style of cooking. I decided it was time to do something different.”
So, with Italianissimo in the capable hands of his staff, Ortega ventured out, found a new location, and devised a Spanish inspired menu. He launched Casa Franco, an eatery that merges Spanish cooking and Latin American flavors, in the West Brighton section this past June.
“This is all based on my customers’ recommendations over the years,” he explained. “For years they have suggested that I try to branch out and explore something new, so that’s exactly what I did.”
The space, home most recently to Randazzo’s Clam Bar, was totally gutted and overhauled. “We completely renovated the space, put in a new kitchen, and changed the dining room,” Ortega said, describing the dining area’s dark walls and lantern sconces. “It has a Spanish look to it, which is exactly what we were trying to achieve.”
Ortega did a lot of research before the launch, including taking a 10 day trip to Spain, where he visited a number of Barcelona kitchens.
“I contacted several of my chef friends on Facebook before I left, and they each allowed me to come to their restaurants and kitchens to observe their work,” Ortega said. “That trip really inspired the menu at Casa Franco.”
Based on the cuisine of the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain, the new menu features plenty of tapas, of course, along with traditional Spanish entrees like paella, churrasco steak, and roasted pig. Ortega has also incorporated Latin influences in his fare, guacamole and ceviche, for starters. Fresh empanadas are made by hand the dough is rolled out on a special marble slab and crispy fried plantain chips are served in place of bread.
Tapas include Pulpo a la Parrilla (broiled baby octopus over green sauce), Calamares Fritos (fried calamari with orange demi glace jalapeños), Ceviche de Gambas and Pulpa de Cangrejo (shrimp and crabmeat ceviche), and Pan Seared Shrimp served with Spanish ham and sweet yellow plantains. Ortega’s lobster is served with Spanish chorizo, his salmon with a chimichurri sauce, and his paella comes in four different varieties. The dessert menu includes homemade Spanish style rice pudding and the chef’s signature flan.
“The specials change every day, and we work with a lot of fish red snapper, filet of sole, tuna,” he said. “I love being in the kitchen, because that is where I can be very creative” For Ortega, who fell in love with the culinary arts at the age of 17 while washing dishes at Teresa’s, a landmark restaurant in Manhattan’s Little Italy, the kitchen is like a second home.
“From the moment I entered a professional kitchen, I felt a passion like no other,” Ortega said. “On my breaks I would grab a pan and cook something for myself to eat. One of the executive chefs took notice of how I chopped and blended ingredients, and asked if he could teach me how to really cook. Of course I said yes.”
Ortega knew immediately that he was in his element, and even as he continued in school, worked daily in Teresa’s busy kitchen, sometimes pulling 18 hour shifts. He drew inspiration from each line cook and chef he encountered, building a repertoire of skills and dishes.
“I’ve basically been working all my life in the business,” Ortega said. “I grew up in Ecuador, where my parents were both cooks. When I came to this country to pursue a career, I started from the bottom and worked my way up to where I am right now.”
This included stints at Pellegrino’s and Casa Bella (both in Little Italy, in lower Manhattan), before settling in Staten Island in 1994. Time as a line cook at Il Ponte in South Beach allowed him to continue his education in fine Italian food.
“When I came to the United States, I took jobs in Italian restaurants, so naturally, that is the type of cuisine that inspired me,” Ortega explained. “I took certain elements from the dishes I made with my parents growing up in Ecuador, like carne apanada, but most of my experience centered around traditional Italian cooking.”
He worked his way up to head chef at Il Ponte, and developed a strong rapport with the restaurant’s regulars. He remained in the kitchen when two brothers bought the eatery and changed the name to Italianissimo. When they retired in 2006, Ortega saw a chance to both own his own place and continue a neighborhood tradition.
“Italianissimo will always remain my priority I’m there every day,” Ortega said. “Casa Franco is just the continuation of the hard work that I have put in there.”
The chef also points to similarities in his restaurants’ menus. “Italian and Spanish cuisines are very similar,” he conceded. “The variation is in the ingredients a lot more saffron and paprika, a little less garlic and oregano. But in both locations, a lot of sangria.”
At both restaurants, Ortega picks all of his own proteins and produce, searching local markets for whatever is freshest. He then spends about 12 hours daily in his kitchens.
“Unfortunately, in this business there’s long hours and no holidays,” he said. “But I love what I do, and there’s no place I’d rather be.
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