Pop-up restaurants, temporary eateries that chefs open to test out trendy concepts in a lower-risk environment, are at one end of the dining-out continuum. One could say Mamma Francesca in New Rochelle, owned by the charming and loquacious Nick Di Costanzo, is at the other end. The traditional Italian restaurant, with a bank of rear dining room windows facing New Rochelle Harbor, has been open for more than 30 years.
You’d think that to be in business so long requires adapting to the culinary trends as well as changing tastes of the dining-out public.
In a word, no.
“I’ve changed very little,” says Di Costanzo. “My cooking and recipes are the same from when I started.”
The Rye Brook resident grew up in Ischia, Italy, a volcanic island in the Gulf of Naples, where his parents owned a restaurant and cooked for him and his eight siblings every day.
He came to the states in 1976, knowing no English, and worked at his brother Pietro’s restaurant, Land & Sea in Harrison, as a busboy. In 1983, after working most every position in the restaurant, Di Costanzo debuted Mamma Francesca. The recipes are from his parents, mostly his mother, and, not surprisingly considering he grew up on an island, heavy on seafood. There’s calamari marinara, sautéed shrimp with broccoli and red sauce over linguine, and sautéed green-as-a-spring-meadow broccoli rabe.
“Almost all my siblings work in the food industry,” says Di Costanzo. “It’s what we know.”
The bread, most of the pasta including gnocchi, pappardelle, fettuccine, and ravioli, plus desserts are all done in-house. Di Costanzo also grows herbs, tomatoes, and arugula at his home for the restaurant kitchen.
The biggest difference in what his customers want from when he opened until now?
“The neighborhood has changed — when I opened it was overwhelmingly Italian-American. Now, while there are still Italians, many Latin people have moved in.”
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(From 2011 to 2013, Di Costanzo took a detour from Italian cooking and opened successive Latin restaurants in the space; both were successful, perhaps too much so, as the neighborhood complained of noise from late-night music and dancing. He reopened Mamma Francesca in 2014.)
“But no matter the background,” he continues. “people come here for authentic Italian food. And that’s what I give them.”
414 Pelham Rd, New Rochelle
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