The Fortes at their Irvington home | Photos by Stefan Radtke
Irvington residents and restaurateurs Vivian and Michael Forte prove business can be a force for good in the community.
It’s no surprise that the hefty, 12-foot, raw-edged, wooden dining-room table is the first thing one notices when walking into Vivian and Michael Forte’s midcentury-modern home, tucked into a cul-de-sac in Irvington.
The table, which seats 16, is the focal point of the house. “A big table was important to us for the sharing that happens,” says Vivian. Clearly, the warmth and friendliness for which Pisticci — their trattoria in New York City’s Morningside Heights — is known begins at home.
Add to that warmth the couple’s adventurous spirit. Not many would open a restaurant — a risky venture under ideal circumstances— sans hospitality experience, early in a marriage, in the world’s restaurant capital.
“I think part of the reason we did marry is because we don’t think like that at all,” comments Vivian. She initially said no to the restaurant, since Michael owned a successful contracting business with his brothers in New Jersey. But she felt a newlywed’s optimism of being able to conquer the world together and didn’t want to hold back his dream. Two weeks after they broke ground, she became pregnant.
“She was crazy,” says Michael. “Because everything we had, every penny I had ever saved my life…” he trails off, laughing. They had met in 1997, watching a lunar eclipse outside their West Village apartment building.
The pair loved the delicious simplicity of the farm-to-table food of his family’s Southern Italian heritage in Pisticci. They were buoyed not only by their can-do spirit but also his construction experience and her financial acumen (she had stints at Goldman Sachs and Citibank). “We knew nothing,” says Michael with regard to the food-service industry. “We based the restaurant on what we’d liked in other restaurants.”
Their initial plan for a takeout-only eatery changed when Michael discovered additional space during construction. The kitchen design, despite two dining-room expansions and the addition of outdoor seating (thanks to the pandemic) has remained a constant since their 2002 opening. “Michael is a visionary in the way he looks at spaces,” praises his spouse.
The Fortes utilize a management style unconventional in the industry, though they did reexamine how they ran the business during the pandemic. Managers and kitchen staff handle most ordering and scheduling. The couple offer employees 401(k)s and subsidize health-care. Also unusual, they’ve employed the same chef and kitchen staff since their opening. This trust and fairness engender a sense of responsibility in their workers that cultivates Pisticci’s gracious spirit.
The benefits outweigh any additional costs, according to the Fortes. They eat dinner at home every night with their children. And they felt confident to leave Pisticci to embark on another adventure: living in New Zealand for six months to celebrate Michael’s 50th birthday. After three months, they wound up living in Perth, Australia, for four years.
In 2014, the family returned to the States, choosing Irvington for its schools, small-town feel, and proximity to the Hudson River. Irvington is also equidistant from Pisticci and Pisticci Full Circle Farm, in Ossining, where Michael produces the restaurant’s herbs and seasonal vegetables. He loved his grandparents’ homegrown vegetables, and managing an urban farm in Perth ignited his love of farming. He uses organic methods and Pisticci’s worm-barrel-composted waste, hence the name Full Circle.
Irvington “is not very wealth-and-status-driven,” says Vivian. “My kids are friends with a very diverse population of kids, both socioeconomically and racially.”
Initially hesitant of Westchester stereotypes, the Fortes have been pleasantly surprised. Irvington “is not very wealth-and-status-driven,” says Vivian, who found living in New Jersey more so. “My kids are friends with a very diverse population of kids, both socioeconomically and racially.” Michael adds, “We couldn’t be more happy with the school system.” Max is a freshman on the track-and-field team at Duke University; Lulu is a rising junior at Irvington High School.
Michael notes the social community and neighbors’ holiday and dinner get-togethers. “On this cul-de-sac, it’s like a throwback,” he says. The duo savor the area’s beauty, taking sunset walks, frequenting Rockefeller Preserve, and running and biking on the Croton Aqueduct.
Given their interests, the Fortes are naturally environmentally conscious. However, Vivian says watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was a “total game-changer.” The couple immediately made changes at home and at the restaurant, including using solar and wind energy. The couple are proud to proclaim that their kids are actively involved too. Pisticci, the first among the few city spots to be carbon-neutral, was named NYC’s greenest restaurant by the Green Restaurant Association in 2018.
Vivian views owning Pisticci as “an incredibly hopeful experience” through which to make a difference. In 2017, Pisticci became a Certified B Corporation after a rigorous application process, legally requiring the Fortes to consider the impact of decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment, and to “balance profit with purpose,” focusing on people, planet, and profit. Only around 50 restaurants worldwide have earned this designation.
They aspire to be role models but not in a self-congratulatory way, hoping, says Vivian, that people would follow their lead in how to treat other people, the planet, and food. “I don’t feel proud to be a role model, if I am,” she states, “[but] it certainly feels self-realizing to think you may be having an impact on others that can carry forward the things that are important to you.”