Chef Tommy Manikas: Culinary Mastermind at La Tavola Trattoria

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Chef Tommy Manikas of La Tavola Trattoria in Sayville.

A few weeks ago, Tommy Manikas Jr., head chef at La Tavola Trattoria in Sayville, whipped up a homemade batch of bundino, a rich, chocolatey,  Italian dessert that’s a cross between pudding and cake.

He added bourbon to give the dessert extra depth and topped it with a sticky, salted caramel sauce. It looked amazing and tasted even better. Manikas had created something special. At least, so he thought.

“We didn’t sell one all week. Not even one person ordered it,” Manikas laughs, sitting at a sunny table just outside the restaurant’s bar on a Thursday afternoon. “It was good, too. It was so good. You just never really know what people are going to want.”

The utter failure of getting his Italian bundino in front of the customer was only a small hiccup in Manikis’s 20-year career as a chef.

“Sure, we have a miss here or there,” he says, “but that doesn’t happen often.”

La Tavola, which recently celebrated a 10-year anniversary, is owned by DeNicola Brothers Concepts, whose restaurants include Ruvo in both Port Jefferson and Greenlawn, and Del Fuego serving up Tex-Mex at four locations around Long Island. Chef Manikas, a native of Bayport, has been at La Tavola from the very beginning.

“I think people appreciate the quality we put out,” he says. “We do all our own desserts, cheesecakes, chocolate mousse cakes, creme brulees. We make all our own pizza dough we have 15 types of pizza on the menu. Everything is made in house, as much as possible.”

It took a little time for Manikas to work his way up through the restaurant chain of command. He started off his culinary career like so many other chefs around Long Island: washing dishes. After completing a program at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, Manikas bounced between a few restaurants. His early career was a rude awakening.

“In school they’d tell us we’d be making so-and-so amount of money,” he says. “But then I got out there and it was a different story. A restaurant would ask me how much I wanted to earn, and I’d say $17 an hour. And they’d say, ‘How about $9.50.’ So I had to stick it out, you know? Working 90 hours a week when I first started.”

Eventually, Manikas made his way back to the Island and landed a job at the Pine Grove Inn in East Patchogue, which specialized in traditional German food. The job may not have been a perfect fit.

“I was cooking wiener schnitzel, traditional sauerbraten, pickled herring, all that stuff,” says Manikas. “Nothing like chicken liver at 9 o’clock in the morning. It’ll wake you right up.”

But his hard work paid off. He bounced around a little more between LI restaurants including Stella Trattoria and Blue before landing at La Tavola.

“It was a pretty natural progression,” he says. “I was a grill guy, and then a sous chef, and now I’m a head chef.”

La Tavola just recently switched over to a fall menu that includes a harvest salad with Brussels sprouts, dried cherries, pears, butternut squash, pumpkin seeds and an orange blossom vinaigrette ($12); butternut squash ravioli with lobster, sage brown butter, and pumpkin seeds ($14/$25); a harvest pizza with broccoli rabe, butternut squash, gorgonzola, pears and orange blossom honey; and a brick-oven-roasted pork cop with a sweet and sour raisin agrodolce and polenta.

Unlike the ill-fated bundino, orders of each have been rolling in.

La Tavola Trattoria is located at 183 Main St. in Sayville. It can be reached at 631-750-6900 or latavolasayville.com