THIS SELF-TAUGHT CHEF AND RESTAURATEUR TALKS FAVORITE INGREDIENTS, WHY HE TRADED WALL STREET FOR WHITE TRUFFLES, AND HOW HIS SUNDAY GRAVY BECAME A LOCAL LEGEND
BY AMANDA MCCOY PHOTOS BY VIOLET KARYN PHOTOGRAPHY
Days move quickly for Steven Botta. As the co-owner and executive chef of three booming New Jersey Italian restaurants, the fast-talking Brooklyn native is friendly with seven-day workweeks, often not hanging his hat for the night until he’s put in ten to 15 hours across his three locations. But amid the myriad of responsibilities that befall a small business owner, for Botta, time slows down in the kitchen. There’s never a rush, no shortcuts to move tables quicker. The Sunday gravy will always simmer for at least two-and-a-half hours, and the meatballs are made from scratch each day.
“I never skimp on ingredients,” noted Botta, who designed the menu at each of his three restaurants: Brando’s in Asbury Park, Osteria Cucina Rustica in Marlboro, and his most recent endeavor, Feast Italian Kitchen in Old Bridge. “In the restaurant industry, the cheaper the ingredients you use, the more money you can make, but that’s not how we do things.”
Botta’s culinary career didn’t follow the traditional path. While the seed was planted in his mother’s kitchen at an early age, cooking was primarily a pastime in Botta’s early adulthood while he pursued a path in finance. He worked on Wall Street for several years and founded a successful insurance and title company before taking a leap of faith in 2011 to purchase his first restaurant, Brando’s. There, he was quickly schooled in the lessons of running a restaurant, but he was an eager student.
“Cooking at home and being in the business are two very different things,” said Botta. “There was a quick learning curve on how to operate a restaurant. Brando’s turned out to be very successful; the food was simply good.”
The chef never attended formal culinary school, but he knew his way around a saucepan. Botta’s mother was a master of old-school Italian fare; he grew up feasting on fried meatballs and Sunday gravy made with pork skin. When creating his first menu for Brando’s, he took several of his mother’s recipes and adapted them for the modern diner.
“We created a good mix of modern and old-school Italian,” explained the chef. “We added high-end steaks and became the first Italian steakhouse in New Jersey. I used the meatball recipe I grew up eating. For the Sunday gravy, I adapted my mother’s recipe. We use pork skin, which is something people don’t use anymore but it adds a lot of flavor. We also use meatballs, sausage, braciola, and pork ribs, and it cooks for two and a half or three hours to lock in all the flavor.”
Now ten years and two additional restaurants later, and Botta still makes the gravy on Sundays.
At both Brando’s and Osteria (the latter opened in summer 2013), both classic fine dining locales, Botta explained he wanted to create an atmosphere of familiarity, a place where patrons feel they are dining at home. As such, he keeps his offerings consistent. While there are weekly specials, regulars can always count on their favorite dish. The menus don’t change; they merely expand.
“I don’t go by the seasons; I believe in keeping the same main menu. I don’t want diners to come in and find a favorite, then the next time they come in, it’s off the menu. We have weekly specials, and if it becomes popular then it becomes a standing special. If it’s around long enough, we add it to the menu.”
The chef is a fan of classic ingredients flavors and aromas that were cornerstones of his family dinner table. Roasted garlic, for example, is a longstanding kitchen staple that he feels is underutilized in modern cooking.
“I use a lot of roasted garlic in my dishes,” he said. “It gives dishes such a nice flavor without being too harsh, so you’re not walking around tasting garlic for the rest of the day [laughs].”
In addition to the signature meatballs and gravy, other fan favorites include the pasta al forno at Osteria, a pasta baked in foil with shrimp, pancetta, and brandy cream sauce, and Brando’s veal parmesan, a double cut prime milk-fed veal chop pounded thin and lightly breaded that covers the entire plate.
To curate new specials, such as Osteria’s stuffed branzino, butterflied and deboned then filled with fresh crab meat and shrimp and served in a white wine anchovy reduction, the chef culls inspiration from other culinary artists around him, such as John Cacace of Michael’s of Brooklyn, and Steve Martorano, a Florida-based chef and restaurateur that, like Botta, is self-taught.
“I get inspired by other chefs all the time. I’ll see something somewhere that looks interesting, then I’ll take it and put my own twist on it.”
Following the sweeping success of Brando’s and Osteria, Botta and his partner, Angelo Bongiovanni, opened Feast Italian Kitchen in 2019 as a more casual, family style concept. The menu falls into modern comfort Italian-American, serving bubbling pizzas fresh from the 800-degree oven, scratch-made pastas and risotto, and classic Italian dishes like chicken parmesan, veal marsala, and shrimp scampi. The Mama Botta’s Sunday Dinner is already locally famous, featuring slow braised ribs, meatballs, sausage, and braciola smothered in Botta’s gravy.
Looking forward, the chef’s family of restaurants will soon welcome a new member, a Brazilian steakhouse concept that was temporarily tabled because of the pandemic. New Jersey diners can expect a 2022 grand opening.
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.com
Feast Italian Kitchen
3899 U.S. 9, Old Bridge, 732.970.8880 / feastnj.com