On Tuesday nights at Port Chester hotspot nessa, customers can feast on a half-order of handmade cavatelli with imported sausage and sage for a mere $5. Pair the pasta with the Nessa Salad (arugula, vine-ripened tomato, fennel, shaved Parmesan, lemon dressing) and a quartino of Barolo, and you’ve got a killer weeknight meal that doesn’t break the bank. This formula of simple yet high-quality food at reasonable prices has been the recipe for nessa’s success—both culinary and financial—since it opened in 2006.
The 86-seat restaurant, which serves some 35,000 guests each year, has been voted Best of Westchester (Wine List and Dessert: Nutella Panini), and is a perennial favorite among visitors to the now-booming Port Chester food scene. Skipping sky-high prices and trendy food may be anathema to some restaurateurs, but it makes perfect sense to nessa owner Marc Tessitore—especially in today’s economic climate. “People don’t want to see a $45 steak on the menu right now,” says the lively 41-year-old Bronx native.
Tessitore doesn’t want such pricey dishes on his menu anyway—he prefers to feature less expensive items, execute them perfectly, and mark them up enough to make a profit, but not so much that customers are turned off. “If swordfish is hailing at $14 a pound and you can only make a two-time mark-up on it, why buy it? Instead, buy monkfish at $6 a pound, earn a three-time mark-up, and do a great puttanesca,” he explains. “There is no less integrity in doing that if you are making the best monkfish anyone has ever had.”
It’s an approach that pleases diners’ stomachs—and their wallets. And it’s brought return on investment for Tessitore, who carried nessa to profitability in its first year of operation, just as he did with his previous restaurant, Edo Japanese Steakhouse in Port Chester.
Thriving in Westchester’s highly competitive restaurant market takes a combination of passion and business savvy, says Tessitore. The most crucial element of success in this business is to have “an unprecedented desire to be the absolute best at what you are doing,” he explains. Second on the list is finding a niche in the market. “If you are not filling a real void, you are entering into someone else’s dream already fulfilled, and that is futile,” he says. Third is knowing your numbers—demographics, psychographics, and traffic are all key, he notes.
With nessa (which is named after his wife, Vanessa), Tessitore hits squarely upon this self-described success trifecta. The restaurant’s downtown Port Chester location—sandwiched between Rye, Greenwich, and Byram, Connecticut—offers excellent population density; easy access to I-95, I-287, and the Merritt Parkway; and some 29,000 cars—all carrying potential customers—passing by each day. Tessitore purchased the building that houses nessa in 2006 (for a fraction of what he would have paid in nearby Greenwich or Rye) at the beginning of Port Chester’s dining explosion, preceding the likes of Tarry Lodge, bartaco, Arrosto, et al.
“Purchasing the building was a long-term strategy that makes a lot of fiscal sense,” he notes. “It also meant a huge investment up front and less operating capital going in.”
Tessitore sensed that the enoteca concept—friendly Italian places focusing on small plates and boutique wines—gaining favor in Manhattan would resonate here in Westchester. “I thought Port Chester was missing that type of dining experience. You could either go to Greenwich Avenue and spend a fortune, or you were stuck with a crappy burger. There was nothing in between where someone was putting integrity into a simple panini or meatball,” Tessitore says. His plan to fill that void? Provide items no one else was offering, like three-meat—each hand-ground—Bolognese sauce; gourmet bruschetta with Robiola cheese and acacia honey; panini with imported cured meats; and butter-pressed, hand-cut bread from local bakery The Kneaded Bread. (Hungry yet?)
“I knew that by offering items such as these along with boutique Italian wines, that people would come back over and over,” he says. “And they have.”
But even with a great concept, great food, and a great location, success is never guaranteed in the restaurant industry, something Tessitore knew firsthand. The business is in Tessitore’s blood: His grandfather operated a bakery and a pizzeria in Harlem and was a longtime manager of Miami’s famed Kit Kat Club, while Tessitore’s father was in the nightclub business for 35 years. Tessitore himself “worked at every beach club in Westchester at some point.”
So he turned to industry friends to help him avoid some of the financial pitfalls that trip up so many startup restaurants. Tessitore enlisted master sommelier Jean-Luc Le Dû (best known for his tenure at Daniel Boulud’s famed Manhattan restaurant Daniel) to help craft nessa’s current award-winning wine list, and the two decided to feature only small, boutique Italian vineyards. These wines not only provide new tasting experiences for customers, but also keep costs in line for Tessitore.
“Jean showed me how to purchase wines of great quality at a good price point, instead of paying top dollar to the major wine distributors,” Tessitore says. Tessitore also made the decision to serve these boutique wines in quartinos instead of glasses, which helps to contain costs. “A quartino is a great way to control your pour because you go right to a certain line (about a glass and a half), instead of eyeballing it,” he says.
Wine is a good moneymaker for the restaurant, he adds, because you get a two-time markup and there isn’t much labor involved. Tessitore purposely puts the wine list on the back of each menu, instead of just having one wine list per table, to get everyone in the restaurant talking about the wines. This emphasis on vino pays off—while most Italian restaurants’ gross wine sales make up about 17 percent of their overall sales, nessa’s make up almost double that amount.
Tessitore also credits his Pelham Memorial High School buddy Michael Montalto—an esteemed restaurant consultant who has worked with the likes of Mario Batali and Steve Hanson (of B.R. Guest Hospitality)—with helping him craft a menu that reflects the restaurant’s culinary goals and also spurs customer spending. By organizing the menu so that bruschetta, antipasti, and pasta selections come before the main courses, customers are invited to taste and sample a variety of foods—just the way Italians do in their own kitchens, he says.
“On Michael’s advice, we designed our menu to run vertically, exactly the way we want people to order. This gives them the best possible representation of our menu, and it also brings up our average ticket per person,” explains Tessitore, who saw a $7-per-person sales increase after the menu redesign.
The success of one of nessa’s most popular menu items—zeppoles—is spawning what Tessitore hopes will be a mini empire built around lightly fried dough. Together with his business partner, Robert Squeri, and another financial backer, Tessitore is launching zeppoleme, a chain of cafés centered on the scrumptious Italian treats. The first zeppoleme is slated to open in Port Chester by summer, and Tessitore plans to open six to eight more locations in the next five years.
“Our customers at nessa go bonkers over our zeppoles, and that convinced me we could sustain a business around them,” explains Tessitore, who puts the cost of the first location at roughly $300,000, and again plans to be profitable in the first year of operation. The economic downturn has worked to his advantage for this expansion, Tessitore says, with construction and labor costs lower than they would be in a healthier economy.
As for the zeppoles, these are not the heavy, greasy artery-cloggers we all remember from county fairs. “We fold ricotta cheese into the dough and lightly fry it, then serve it with amazing sauces like buttercream, vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon sugar, and hazelnut. Zeppoleme will also offer savory options like zeppole with cream cheese and chives, or provolone and pancetta,” Tessitore says.
The zeppoleme menu will also include breakfast, lunch, and dinner panini; salads and soups; as well as inexpensive pulled wines. In addition, the restaurants will be Westchester’s first purveyors of Stumptown Coffee Roasters, a growing Portland-based chain that emphasizes high-quality coffee and ethical business practices. Tessitore sees zeppoleme as an anti-Starbucks. “I would feel confident putting a zeppoleme across from any Starbucks and know that we would do droves of business because we will appeal to serious coffee drinkers,” he says. “People are yearning for a real down-home neighborhood spot like this.”
Despite the still-shaky economy and the stiff competition in both the Italian cuisine and coffee shop sectors of the restaurant industry, Tessitore is remarkably confident in his vision. “My goal with nessa and zeppoleme is to offer incredible integrity of product, delicious food that is made in-house and to order, delivered with great, friendly service, at the best possible price,” he says. “If we can keep doing that, I know we’ll continue to be successful.”
Amy Roach Partridge is a veteran business writer and editor based in Thornwood who now has a serious zeppole obsession.
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