A SUCCESSFUL RESTAURATEUR BUILDS ON HIS LEGACY WITH THE LAUNCH OF HIS SECOND ESTABLISHMENT, AN ECLECTIC ITALIAN KITCHEN CENTERED ON THE CELEBRATION OF FOOD
BY ERIK SCHONING • PHOTOS BY VIOLET KARYN PHOTOGRAPHY
In Italy, a trattoria is a no-frills restaurant, a place to celebrate food as it is: fresh and authentic, without pomp or circumstance. The newly opened DeLuca’s Trattoria in West Brighton, brainchild of restaurateur Rob DeLuca, aims to do justice to that tradition, one plate of homemade pasta at a time
DeLuca opened his first restaurant at age 27, fresh out of culinary school at ICE. As with many Italian Americans, food was a major part of his life growing up. Even as he picked up a bachelor’s degree in finance and a master’s degree in business management, professional skills that would prove essential when the time came to open his own business, his heart remained in the kitchen.
“I started working in restaurants when I was 16 years old,” DeLuca said. “I fell in love with the industry immediately. My passion is the culinary arts. I love people. I love service. There’s always just been something in me that has been geared toward this industry.”
That first restaurant, DeLuca’s Italian Restaurant, is a study in tradition, featuring a black-and-gold aesthetic and a knockout lineup of Italian favorites. It’s a classic Italiano restaurant, which is why when it came time for DeLuca to think about expansion to a second location, he knew he wanted to do something different.
To find inspiration, DeLuca looked at contemporary design trends in Italy, where he found a generational shift toward lighter, brighter interiors and a more modern emphasis on the minimal. As his vision for the trattoria came together, it became clear that simplicity would be the operative word, from the décor down to the menu.
“We wanted to make a simpler style place and really do everything as homemade as possible,” DeLuca said. “So all the pastas that we serve are fresh and homemade. Our pizzas it’s not just a pepperoni pie. We’re making these artisan gourmet-style pizzas that you can’t get anywhere else, with the freshest and highest quality ingredients.”
“We wanted to make a simpler style place and really do everything as homemade as possible.”
The kitchen of DeLuca’s Trattoria is led by executive chef Salvatore Musso, who’s been with DeLuca since his early days of restaurant ownership. Every morning, chefs can be found hand rolling fiore di latte, the ultra-soft mozzarella that works beautifully in pastas and is a natural pizza topper. Fresh pasta is being made, from classic ribbons of tagliatelle to ear-shaped orecchiette. None of this is the easy way to run a restaurant, but that extra attention to detail is what makes this menu pop. When you’re serving something as wonderfully simple as a four-ingredient margherita pie, topped only with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, pecorino, and basil, every ingredient counts.
Pizza is new to DeLuca’s menu, and it takes center stage here, served bar-style and available to stay or to go. There’s the Il Leone, featuring fresh vodka sauce, prosciutto, and smoked mozzarella, and the Sicilian-influenced Pistachio Pesto, blanketed with burrata, mortadella, and crisp sun-dried tomatoes. Rounding out the menu is a lineup that will be familiar to fans of DeLuca’s Italian Restaurant: orecchiette barese, gnocchi sorrentino, cacio e pepe. There are also the famous Mamma’s Meatballs, the dish DeLuca bet on in launching his restaurant career.
“When I first opened, people said, ‘What’s going to make you different?’ And I said, ‘My mama’s meatballs are better than your mama’s meatballs,’” DeLuca said. “Meatballs are a very sensitive topic. Nobody wants to hear that somebody else’s mother’s meatballs are better than theirs. So we got a mad rush in the beginning with people wanting to try them.”
For DeLuca, chef is a role he was born to play. From a childhood spent watching his mom cook to several formative experiences in professional kitchens, food has always been in his blood. It’s for this reason there’s no need for grand experiments on his restaurant menus; there’s a pervading ethos here that classics are classics for a reason. Many recipes at the trattoria come from DeLuca’s great-grandfather, a cook himself. Rather than reinvent the wheel, the idea is to perfect it.
DeLuca’s Trattoria opened its doors in early April, unveiling a deluxe marble bartop and clean gray-and-white interior that looks to the future even while harkening back to the Italian restaurants of yesteryear. (Traditionalists needn’t worry: white tablecloths are still very much the norm here.) DeLuca’s wife, Gina Marie DeLuca, spearheaded the interior design and aesthetic of the space. As with the menu, there’s a lot of flexibility in these digs at 616 Forest Avenue. This is a place for weeknight pizza, weekend celebrations and holidays, date nights, and family meals. By sticking to his philosophy of elegant simplicity, DeLuca has been able to offer West Brighton locals a destination for every occasion. “It always takes time, but we’re definitely ahead of schedule after the first month,” DeLuca said. “It’s been fantastic. The neighborhood seems to be really receptive. We’re really just focused on giving people great service and great food so they’re going to want to come back time and time again.”
It takes a full 30 minutes to get from DeLuca’s Italian Restaurant in Tottenville to West Brighton. It’s a drive DeLuca already knows well as he leans into the next phase of his restaurant career. Despite the differences in location and aesthetic, his two restaurants have more in common than they have differences. DeLuca’s Trattoria does what every good sequel should do: build on the promise of the original without touching what made it so great in the first place.
616 Forest Avenue / 718.442.7204 / delucasitalian.com