THIS TOTTENVILLE RESTAURANT FUSES CLASSIC SICILIAN COMFORT FARE WITH ITALIAN FINE DINING PRINCIPLES TO WINNING RESULTS
BY ERIK SCHONING • PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO
Abad joke: stand on a street corner in Staten Island, throw a rock, and see if you can’t hit an Italian restaurant. The borough is a mecca of Italian joints of all stripes, from your classic red sauce and checkered tablecloth locales to upscale, ultra-modern trattorias. Zio Toto in Tottenville is a fusion of both, a restaurant with real heritage that has kept its finger on the city’s culinary pulse throughout its nine-year life. The architect behind that menu is Chicco Asante.
Asante was born in Italy (a good start for a chef) and went to culinary school in Milan. Splitting the distance between Venice and Turin, the city is known as a gastronomic crossroads in the country. His next stop was New York City, where he cut his teeth in high-intensity kitchens and rubbed elbows with a few familiar names.
“I’ve been cooking since 1982,” said Asante. “I’ve cooked for John Travolta. I’ve cooked for Frank Sinatra. I’ve cooked for President Reagan.”
Asante served as the executive chef at the storied celebrity hangout Orsini’s. He also helmed the ship at San Domenico on Central Park South, which launched the career of celebrity chef Odette Fada. But it was at Fabio Cucina Italiana that Asante was really able to put his fingerprints on a plate. Here he had a reputation for attentiveness, sometimes even greeting customers by name at the door and taking their jackets. During Asante’s tenure at Fabio he practiced a philosophy of freshness, centering on homemade pasta and hand-selected produce.
Meanwhile down in Tottenville, New York City’s southernmost neighborhood, Filippo and Joanne Giuffre opened Zio Toto, a Sicilian restaurant they named for Filippo’s dad, Salvatore (his nickname was “Zio Toto,” or Uncle Sal in Italian). They leaned on their Sicilian heritage when building the menu. The owners believed the best restaurants begin with family fare, and that’s evident at Zio Toto. From the start, the backbone of their menu was
recipes that the owners grew up on.
When it came time for Asante to find a new culinary home in the city, he had options. Top-notch executive chefs tend to be in high demand, but the decision, Asante said, was ultimately a no-brainer.
“I chose Zio Toto because the customers and the owner, Filippo, truly appreciate and adore authentic Italian cuisine,” said the chef. “This is not something you find in every restaurant.”
There’s an unspoken consensus among Italian restaurants in the city that Italian food is too good and too diverse to limit a menu to one particular region. There’s a famous scene in The Sopranos where characters argue spaghetti and meatballs versus orrecchiete with broccoli rabe. Fortunately for hungry diners, these north/south distinctions matter little to the palate.
So with Asante’s arrival, Zio Toto’s menu has become a pan-Italian affair. You’ll still find spiedini di vitello, which is as Sicilian as it gets: skewers of pounded stuffed veal rolled in breadcrumbs and finished with those classically Sicilian garnishes, pine nuts and raisins. But look just one line up on the menu and you’ll find vitello alla Valdostana, named for the Valle d’Aosta region in Northwest Italy that borders Switzerland and France. The dish is essentially a breaded veal cutlet stuffed with fontina cheese and prosciutto and topped with a brown sauce.
What’s interesting about spiedini di vitello and vitello alla Valdostana is that there are real similarities to the dishes, so their coexistence on a menu makes perfect sense. The introduction of chef Asante’s cuisine adds a different dimension to the roots-oriented cooking that Zio Toto built its name on.
“With chef Asante, we added new dishes and new flair to go perfectly with our traditional dishes,” said owner Filippo Giuffre. “What he brings complements what we already have.”
On any given night you’ll find Zio Toto’s white tablecloth dining room packed to the brim. You’ll find pizza fired in a wood-burning oven topped with burrata mozzarella flown in from Caserta, Italy, a town near Naples. You’ll find just about every type of pasta dish, from the rich costolette di tagliatelle (braised short ribs with a housemade borolo wine sauce) to Asante’s signature pasta dello chef, a housemade fettucini topped with truffle and Grana Padano cheese (He’ll prepare this one for you at your table, too).
Forget geography; the Italian American experience has always been about bringing out the best in every background. Italian chef and cookbook author Marcella Hazan once wrote that there are no high or low roads in Italian cooking, just la cucina di casa: home cooking.
“My career spans two continents and over 30 years,” added Asanta. “I hope my passion shines through everything I do.
86 Page Avenue / 718.317.0373 / ziototo.com