Italian-Born Chefs Bring Real-Deal Flavor to Westchester

Local restaurants are getting a credibility — and culinary — boost from Italian-born chefs.

For me, to be an authentic Italian restaurant, you have to have somebody Italian to check out the ingredients and the quality,” says Tony Spiritoso. As chef at La Bocca Ristorante in White Plains, Spiritoso, who grew up in Cosenza, Calabria, takes that commitment seriously.

In June, La Bocca became the first and only restaurant in Westchester to receive an Ospitalità Italiana certification from the Italian consulate in NYC, which sets high standards for the percentage and types of designation-certified ingredients and wines served in a restaurant. “In Italian cuisine, you have to use fine ingredients,” says Spiritoso. “But you also have to know how to use an ingredient imported from Italy. That’s what makes good cuisine. If you use the best-quality prosciutto and cut it an inch thick, it won’t taste good.”

La Bocca isn’t alone in recognizing the value of Italian-born chefs in the kitchen. From new eateries to stalwart institutions, the Mediterranean county’s sons are making a splash.

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Photo by Doug Schneider

At Roman restaurant TVB by: Pax Romana in White Plains, recreating the Eternal City’s classic dishes requires a chef who knows the capital’s cuisine. “When I came to the United States, there were some dishes I’d never seen in Italy,” recalls Chef Cristian Petitta, who went to culinary school in Rome and grew up in nearby Marino. “At Pax Romana, our carbonara is exactly the same [as you would have in Rome]. There’s no cream, peas, or mushrooms. It’s just guanciale, black pepper, egg, and pecorino Romano.”

When the restaurant first opened, the menu was more “aggressively Roman,” says Petitta, referencing dishes like Amatriciana and offal, including tripe and oxtail, which didn’t sell well. Still, Petitta says customers have become increasingly educated about “real Italian” food.

For Vento Bistro chef Francesco Coli, it’s the seafood-heavy cuisine of his native Puglia that informs the menu. Born in Salento, Coli was raised between Italy and the US, and his coastal-Italian cuisine reflects summers spent plucking sea urchin from the water and spearfishing for octopus. “We would eat it raw,” recalls Coli, who serves a wide range of crudo at the New Rochelle restaurant. “It’s all about the freshness of the fish and the simplicity of the preparation. For me, fish is my culture. It’s where I come from and how I grew up. This isn’t a job for me; it’s a lifestyle.”

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Photo by John Bruno Turiano

At Chef Antonio Ristorante in Mamaroneck, the focus shifts away from the sea toward the earth. Chef Mario Randazzo grew up in a farming family in Sciara, Sicily, about an hour southeast of Palermo. “We grew artichokes, eggplant, broccoli, tomatoes, and citrus,” he remembers. “My grandfather and brothers would bring home what was left of their harvest, and my mother would take simple ingredients and make hearty meals.”

Though it’s been 45 years since Randazzo and his family moved to the States, he’s still trying to recreate those childhood memories at the restaurant. “I want people to experience that home feeling and remember what grandma used to make,” he says. “I want to pass on my traditions.” That includes cooking family recipes like his mother’s ricotta gnocchi with pine-nut-and-raisin-stuffed braciole; slow-cooked artichokes stuffed with breadcrumbs, garlic, and prosciutto; and homemade cannoli.

Photo by Ken gabrielsen

Mom’s recipes are also on the menu at Neapolitan chef Raffaele Ronca’s Rafele in Rye, which opened in June. “My area is famous for pizza, zuppa di pesce, and linguine vongole,” says Ronca. “The food I cook in the restaurant is very similar to what my mother cooked at home.”

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Ingredients from the region also make a big impact on the menu. Buffalo-milk ricotta shows up in the restaurant’s ethereally smooth, award-winning cheesecake, and San Marzano tomatoes, grown in the mineral-rich soil around Mount Vesuvius, are the backbone of his velvety sauce, a recipe that comes from his mother.

Photo by Doug Schneider

Ronca isn’t the only Neapolitan restaurateur who opened a restaurant in Westchester in 2018. At his eponymous Scarsdale restaurant, Café Alaia, co-owner Vincenzo Alaia doesn’t put Italian-American dishes on the menu. “Our identity is Italian because I am Italian,” he explains. “We don’t do chicken parm. The only thing on the menu that is not Italian is the Caesar salad, because I had a lot of requests.”

Instead, Chef Luca Cabras, who was born in Piedmont and trained in Tuscany, serves elegantly rustic fare, like eggplant soufflé with burrata fondue; whole-baked branzino, simply dressed with lemon, garlic, parsley and olive oil; chicken-liver crostini; and fresh pappardelle with rich lamb ragù and shaved pecorino.

That authenticity is one of the reasons the restaurant is often full. “Vincenzo can’t help but be authentic, because he grew up with the food,” says co-owner Nancy Rosner. “It’s the Italian-American food that’s foreign to him. He wouldn’t know how to do that.”


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