AFTER NEARLY 27 YEARS IN BUSINESS, THIS COZY CHIC ITALIAN MAINSTAY CELEBRATES A HEAD TO TOE MAKEOVER BUT THE ONE THING THAT HASN’T CHANGED? THE HOMECOOKED DISHES STATEN ISLANDERS HAVE LOVED FOR TWO AND HALF DECADES AND COUNTING
BY AMANDA McCOY PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO
Once or twice a week, chef Franco Ortega, owner of Italianissimo in South Beach, journeys into the Bronx to visit the Fulton Fish Market, hand selecting the fish, octopus, shrimp, clams, oysters, and lobster he’ll use to craft pastas, mains, and classic starters like calamari and baked clams. The restaurant’s grilled seafood platter, featuring an assortment of freshly sizzled ocean favorites, has reached icon status among Italianissimo’s regulars, and the chef noted his secret starts with the ingredients.
“The seafood is the star of our menu, and it’s never delivered to the restaurant,” said Ortega. “I personally pick everything myself to ensure I’m only serving the best.”
This “back to the basics” philosophy is a cornerstone of Ortega’s cooking. Italianissimo (which directly translates to “very Italian”) doesn’t buy into gustatory trends. The dishes are classic Italiano: the house blend meatballs are slowly simmered and served with fresh whipped ricotta, while the rigatoni is presented in a pool of rich, homemade Sunday Sauce.
“We’ve been serving traditional Italian favorites for almost 27 years,” said the chef. “I keep to that.”
Ortega’s restaurant career began at 17 when he took a part time job as a dishwasher at Teresa’s in Little Italy. Fascinated by the energy of the kitchen the expeditious environment, the chefs and cooks working side by side to turn ingredients into culinary art he instantly knew he found his calling, and he dropped out of school to direct all his energy to the kitchen. His tenure as a dishwasher would only last two months. The lead chef noticed the talent and drive of the ambitious young Ortega and promoted him to the line. At 19, he took a job as a prep cook at Il Ponte, the eatery that would eventually become Italianissimo when it was purchased by two brothers in 1996, and the kitchen would become Ortega’s second home.
In this new role, Ortega laughingly recalled being teased for his age. “No one in the kitchen could believe what I already knew, because they thought I was too young,” said Ortega. “After seeing what I could do, they began to take me seriously, and in two years I was running the kitchen. That’s when I realized I wanted to have my own restaurant one day.”
Ortega credits Italianissimo’s founders with turning the locale into a Staten Island icon. Ten years after it was christened, the chef was presented with the opportunity to purchase the restaurant, and his longstanding ambition of operating his own establishment came to fruition. A “dream come true,” he said.
Italianissimo serves both lunch and dinner, along with a three course prix fixe featuring the chef’s selections. While the seafood is hand picked by the chef, nearly every other ingredient is imported from Italy. Pepper, olive oil, tomatoes, cheese, and more cross the Atlantic each week to ensure an authentically Italian menu.
Traditional starters are served hot or cold, from homemade mozzarella and caprese with roasted peppers to a bubbling baked artichoke. Patrons can also begin their meal with a traditional Italian soup, including pasta fagioli (a classic Tuscan bean soup with cavatelli), minestrone, and lentils and sausage. All pastas are made in house daily, and run the gamut from orecchiette with broccoli rabe, sausage, and garlic to the timebhonored spaghetti cacio e pepe with fresh parm and pecorino. Ocean forward dishes include grilled salmon dressed shrimp stuffed with crab meat, and a daily assortment of seafood and lobster tail served over linguine. A platter of prime cut meats, from veal to angus steak, have also become fan favorites.
While the menu is largely fixed, the chef rotates in daily specials. Here, he’ll wiggle away from the traditional to offer guests inventive takes on Italian plates, such as pasta pappardelle topped with short ribs and fresh burrata.
“The specials are where I’ll add a twist on traditional dishes,” noted the chef. “We’ll mix in something different, a dish you wouldn’t find on any Italian menu. Sometimes I’ll add a touch of France.”
While Ortega’s dedication to Italian culinary principals hasn’t changed since he took over the reins of the restaurants, he recently launched a major renovation of the bar and dining room, the first in the eatery’s 27 years. The new space features light washed wooden flooring juxtaposed by warm gray textured wallpaper and modern recessed lighting. White tablecloth topped tables are accompanied by rich brown leather chairs, and black and white photographs of classic Italian scenes hang from the walls.
“It was time for a change,” he explained. “It was time to reimagine the restaurant for the next generation. Everything was redone, from the bar to the fine dining room. The atmosphere is more casual elegant.”
But worry not, Italianissimo devotees. Ortega reassured that the food, hyper fresh ingredients, and quality remains the same. He still ventures into the Bronx himself to source seafood every week, and takes no shortcuts in the kitchen. To him, it’s the least he can do for a community that has supported him from the beginning.
“I’m so thankful to the people of Staten Island and my amazing customers,” he said. “There’s really no secret to the restaurant’s success. If you love what you do and give people quality that says everything about you. My promise is to put the best of the best on the table. After almost 27 years in the restaurant, it’s so fulfilling to continue giving back to the community that has welcomed me.”
107 McClean Avenue / 718.442.4442 / italianissimony.com