“THE BEST OF EVERYTHING” APTLY DESCRIBES THIS TOTTENVILLE FINE DINING ITALIAN RESTAURANT, WHICH HAS FOUND SUCCESS IN PART VIA A TIME HONORED PIZZA RECIPE
BY JESSICA JONES GORMAN • PHOTOS BY AMANDA DOMENECH
If you sneak a peek into the Tottenville kitchen of Zio Toto on just about any Saturday night, you’ll catch a glimpse of Filippo Giuffre, rolling up the sleeves of his three piece suit to craft a specialty pizza.
“I can’t say no,” noted the restaurateur, describing lengths he’ll go to answer a customer request. “I’m extremely proud of this family recipe, and I love crafting a specialty pie that I know will wow guests.”
Giuffre, literally a hands on proprietor who starts every morning working the pizza dough, explained that this brand of personal attention to detail is all part of the business’s modus operandi.
“I’m in here every morning at 9:00 a.m., mixing the dough for that day’s lunch and dinner crowd,” he said, while divulging few details about his Italian imported flour and yeast. “My oldest brother, Gaetano, has been making pizza for close to 40 years in all of the top restaurants in Italy and New York City.
He crafted this recipe, which we’ve been using here for the past six months. It’s so special that if I’m away which is rare I’ll FaceTime the kitchen staff while they’re prepping it to make sure they’re doing it right.”
Giuffre makes the chunky tomato sauce, too, hand squeezing the ripe plum tomatoes himself. The crust is covered in sauce, fresh mozzarella, and a variety of toppings (think sweet sopressata, eggplant, prosciutto, and arugula) then popped in a wood burning brick oven until cooked perfectly.
“My customers even the ones from Italy tell me it’s the best pizza they ever tasted,” he said. “And I take all of those compliments very seriously.”
A true family affair, Zio Toto, which features Giuffre’s sister, Anna Napoli, as executive chef, opened on Staten Island’s South Shore in March of 2012. It is an extension of the family’s Brooklyn restaurant of the same name, and has a menu full of the Giuffre family’s authentic Sicilian recipes.
“We wanted to emphasize a Sicilian section on our menu because that’s where we’re from and that’s the type of food that really hits home for us,” noted Guiffre, who together with his brother, Brooklyn chef Giuseppe Giuffre, helped concoct the lineup of favorites.
“We developed a selection of six items, all traditional Italian dishes, like Bucatini Cavolfiore and Spiedini di Vitello,” he said.
“The dishes are my mother’s recipes, the food I grew up eating. But it’s what makes our menu unique. I love it when people come in and say, ‘This is exactly how my grandmother used to make this.’ ”
Giuffre, whose family has been in the restaurant business for 30 years, said the formula has been a success with Staten Islander diners.
“Our customers are the best,” he noted. “They continue to eat here on a regular basis some have even become like family to us.”
According to Giuffre, it’s the menu’s extensiveness that also draws a steady crowd. Sicilian offerings are rounded out by other fine dining options like grilled baby lamb chops, a strip steak served with rosemary potatoes, and a veal chop stuffed with sauteed mushrooms, prosciutto, and fontina cheese. The tuna is grilled and served over arugula in a lemon dressing, and the salmon comes with sauteed asparagus, cherry tomatoes, and crabmeat in a light garlic butter sauce. Thirteen types of wood fired pizza, four different focaccia breads, and seasonal varieties of fresh risotto are also featured.
“We’ve added a lot of specials to the regular menu this year because they’ve become so popular and so requested,” Giuffre said. “Swordfish, codfish, and home made lasagna are now served daily.”
The wine list, which likewise has a traditional focus, features options from several different regions of Italy as well as vintages from France and California. They are joined by a menu of 12 specialty cocktails, all crafted by a seasoned mixologist. Desserts, with the exception of the gelato, are made on site.
The décor, Giuffre explained, encourages diners to “sit, sip, and stay.”
“I want customers to have a night out,” he said. “They can spend five hours here if they want. I want their experience to be welcoming and inviting, so we added all of these very unique, appealing details. I want people to come here for dinner and stay for the ambience.”
The experience includes live music on weekends, and there’s also a party space that can accommodate 100 guests. Giuffre hosts events throughout the year, including an Italian night, a Halloween party, and a New Year’s Eve celebration.
“Every party is a beautiful compliment,” Giuffre said, noting that there have been several wedding receptions at the Tottenville location during the past seven years. “The idea that couples choose this spot for what is probably one of the biggest moments of their lives proves to me that I’ve accomplished what I wanted to achieve.”
“There are a lot of really good Italian restaurants on Staten Island,” he added. “But I’m not competing with them or worried about what everyone else is doing. My objective here is to deliver the best quality food you can find the freshest fish, the finest cuts of meat. From the start I wanted to create a great experience. Seven years later, I think we really have an amazing place.”
86 Page Avenue / 718.317.0373