A PASSION FOR HOME-COOKED BASICS HELPS ONE CHEF MAKE CUSTOMERS FEEL THEY’RE ALWAYS AT MOM’S SUNDAY DINNER
by Susan Lunny Keag • Photos By Premiere Digital
Executive Chef Steven Botta may not have learned to cook at a culinary school, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have great teachers.
“Most of the things I’ve learned are from my mom and my partner’s mother-in-law,” said Botta. It’s no surprise then that those who come to his two New Jersey restaurants, Osteria Cucina Rustica in Marlboro and Brando’s in Asbury Park—both of which he co-owns and operates with Angelo Bongiovanni—come back time after time for fare inspired by family recipes.
“I cooked all the dishes my mom cooked. Sunday was always a big day. That’s why that tradition carries over to both restaurants…I still make the gravy at both,” said Botta. Many people who usually prefer to have their “Sunday gravy” at home now frequent Botta’s eateries.
“We have a huge following for it. The first time people try it, they love it,” Botta said, boasting that his meatballs are the best in New Jersey and gives credit to his mom immediately. “We do small batches using her same recipe. It’s replicated every time. We don’t make 100 lbs. and freeze it…our meatballs are fried like my mother made them,” Botta explained. “If I had a nickel for every time someone said, ‘I don’t eat meatballs out,’ and then I tell them, ‘If you don’t like them, you don’t have to pay.’ I’ve never had to pay.”
In addition to his mother, Botta draws inspiration from celebrity chefs like Food Network’s Scott Conant, the creator of the Italian restaurant Scarpetta, as well as Steve Martorano of the well-known Café Martorano. While Conant went to the Culinary Institute of America and Martorano is self-taught, both chefs developed their craft with help from their moms. They also both are passionate about the process, something that Botta believes is the real secret ingredient in his cooking. The co-owner has enjoyed making food since he started experimenting in the kitchen at the age of seven. Back then, he would try different ways to prepare eggs at home, but that’s not the only place the young chef cooked. As he grew older, Botta would cook for large groups of friends as they shared vacation homes in the Hamptons, Hunter Mountain, and down the Jersey Shore.
“Everyone would say, ‘You should open a restaurant,’” Botta recalled, but he explored other roads first, studying business and working in the financial field for 12 years. He finally realized that while he could make money in finance, he wasn’t following his dream. “It just wasn’t my passion,” Botta said.
“I cooked all the dishes my mom
cooked. Sunday was always a big day,
and that tradition carries over…
I still make the gravy.”
Botta is passionate about his menu—changing specials weekly, from appetizers to main courses. (“Every week there’s between five to ten new specials,” he said.) He also likes to put a new twist on a traditional dish. Take the Pasta al Forno, made with shrimp, radicchio, and fresh mozzarella in a brandy cream sauce and baked in a foil pouch. (“It’s like vodka sauce meets baked ziti,” Botta said.) There’s also the Chicken Scarpariello, pan sautéed chicken served with sausage, lemon, potatoes, and white wine. “Everything is made to order,” Botta said. “Not pre-cooked.” Another favorite dish the owner enjoys is grilled octopus, served in a red wine reduction with baked mashed potatoes. “It makes you feel like you’re transported to a seaside town in Italy,” he observed.
While some chefs enjoy preparing elaborate meals at home, Botta noted that being single and having a work schedule of seven days a week, 10 to 15 hours a day doesn’t give him much time for extracurricular cooking. In fact, if you check his refrigerator, the most variety you’ll find is in types of spring water. However, those who eat one of his dishes feel very much like they’re eating at home.
“It’s not the restaurant business, it’s really the hospitality business,” said Botta. “It’s making people feel comfortable and at home. You don’t want to feel like a number…you want to feel like family. I love that when people eat my food it puts a smile on their face. That’s a high for me.”
Osteria Cucina Rustica
91 S Main St., Marlboro Township / 732.577.8288 / osterianj.com
Brando’s Citi Cucina
162 Main St., Asbury Park / 732.774.2222 / brandosnj.c