Alan Krawitz


Vincent’s Clam Bar Preserves the Italian-American Experience

vincent's clam bar
Vincent’s co-owner Tony Marisi. (Courtesy Anthony Gentile)

For more than 38 years, the iconic Vincent’s Clam Bar in Carle Place has been preserving the Italian American experience for scores of diners across Long Island, New York City, and beyond. 

The original Vincent’s began life as a popular clam pushcart in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood and later evolved into Vincent’s Clam Bar restaurant on Mott and Hester Streets in 1904. The Little Italy location is still open and continues to be a sister property to Vincent’s Carle Place. 

“We both started out working at Vincent’s as waiters, while we were going to college,” recalls Bobby Marisi, who co-owns Vincent’s with his brother Tony. He says the restaurant went up for sale and they decided to buy it in 1983.  

Bobby says that the restaurant started out with a small but loyal following.  “At first, we thought the place would be like a Dunkin’ Donuts, where all we had to do was run it,” as he recalls that there was a commissary for the restaurant that prepared all the food and brothers would call in the orders they needed. 

But he said that system broke down “within three months” and then they both had to scramble and basically learn how to run an Italian restaurant from scratch. 

Fast forward to nearly four decades later and many obstacles along the way, and Vincent’s has seemingly perfected a simple concept that yields “consistently good cuisine,” according to regular customer and former Sopranos star Joe Gannascoli.  

With the help of marketing director Anthony Gentile, who grew up in the same Ozone Park, Queens neighborhood as the Marisi brothers, Vincent’s has transcended the concept of just a memorable Italian restaurant to become a purpose-driven brand that emphasizes more than just a great dinner: giving people a great experience and giving back to the community.

Vincent’s concept of giving back takes many forms, such as its involvement in environmental efforts to help replenish oyster populations and keep Long Island’s waterways clean. One such project, Half Shells for Habitat, uses donated clam shells to hatch new oysters, which help to filter and clean the water. 

In addition, the restaurant has made a regular practice of giveaways to diners. 

“We always give back to diners, with something on the house for nearly every table that comes in, whether it’s a bottle of wine for a special event or an appetizer or dessert,” Bobby explains.

Tony adds that the practice reinforces Vincent’s place in the experience business, meaning that people come back when they’ve had a good experience. Bobby estimates Vincent’s gives away about $10,000 in food and other givebacks per week. “It helps form a bond with the customers.”

During the pandemic, Vincent’s worked with Gannascoli, who was already delivering food to first responders across Long Island and New York City. “Vincent’s was matching the dollar amounts I was spending on food,” said Gannascoli. 

Bobby says that they had to “pivot hard,” to takeout, in order to keep the staff of nearly 100 working and the restaurant going despite the inside being closed for more than two months. “Like everyone else, we experienced staffing issues, and it was hard to get people to work.” 

But, he says, they were well positioned for the adjustment since they already did a lot of takeout.  “We already had a 40,000-name email list,” said Tony. “We had lines going almost out to Old Country Road.” 

In the kitchen, several chefs oversee the preparation of time-honored, classic Vincent’s dishes including baked clams, shrimp Parmigiana, linguine with clam sauce, penne alla vodka, chicken Marsala, and eggplant.

And of course, Vincent’s continues to sell its now world-famous, 120-year-old recipe red sauces — mild, medium, or hot — in area supermarkets and online.  

Desserts are also homemade, with favorites including creme brulee, apple pie, Napoleon, and cannoli.   

Gentile says it’s all about making their customers “brand ambassadors.”

Some of those ambassadors include an impressive list of celebrities such as former Yankee greats Jim Leyritz and Don Mattingly as well as comedian Andrew Dice Clay and actor Chazz Palminteri.  

Bobby adds, “We’re in the happiness business. Food is the vehicle, but happiness is the result.”  

About the restaurant business, both brothers say it takes a lot of “perseverance.” 

They want to franchise, but that has yet to happen. “There’s lots of people interested but no one has committed yet,” says Bobby.  “It’s difficult to find the right people who really want to live the Vincent’s experience.” 

He adds, I don’t think there is a more difficult business today than the restaurant business.” 

Tony says also that consumers are much more knowledgeable than ever, thanks to social media and the prevalence of celebrity chef cooking TV programs. 

“Long Island and city residents are more worldly and intelligent, they travel all over, they’ve been to Italy, so they know how to compare the food they had there to what we might serve them here.”

Gentile says, though, that no matter how sophisticated the diner becomes, Vincent’s continues to “push the envelope,” adding, “We never rest on our laurels.” 

Gannascoli adds, “The brothers are so on top of everything, they make every night special, like their first night in business.” 

Vincent’s Clam Bar is located at 179 Old Country Rd. in Carle Place. It can be reached at 516-742-4577. Visit at www.vincentsclambar.com

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Former Sopranos Actor Holds Themed Parties As A Private Chef on Long Island

Joe Gannascoli hosts Sopranos-themed dinner parties as a private chef.

Long before his popular role in HBO’s The Sopranos series, LI resident Joe Gannascoli was making his bones offscreen and in the kitchen as an accomplished chef. 

Gannascoli, 62, a self-taught chef who hails from what he calls a big, “food-oriented” family in Brooklyn, is now using his kitchen chops as much as his acting prowess by combining his passions into private chef Sopranos parties. 

“Cooking and acting are my two passions,” says Gannascoli, who estimates he’s now done about 80 Sopranos-themed private chef parties on Long Island and in New Jersey and beyond for the past few years.  

The parties, with a minimum of 16 guests, feature an impressive array of dishes specially prepared by Gannascoli, from appetizers like antipasto to pasta and a main dish of either chicken, fish, or beef. Favorites include his clam and vodka sauces.

“I pretty much make anything you want,” he says, adding that the parties really make sense if people are Sopranos fans. He answers questions about the show, signs autographs, and poses for pictures.  

But, although the persona of Vito Spatafore, whom Gannascoli played for 41 episodes of the show from 1999-2006, is a main attraction, it is not the only one. 

“The food is good on its own,” he says. “I do some parties where I have people shooting lines at me left and right.” 

Gannascoli recalls teaching himself to cook before landing gigs at restaurants in Manhattan including Manhattan Market before moving to New Orleans for a stint at Commander’s Palace.

After New Orleans, Gannascoli returned to New York and worked at Nightfalls and Restaurant 101 in Bay Ridge. Around this same time, he auditioned for off-Broadway plays and studied drama.  

Gannascoli returned to the restaurant business with a successful venue of his own, Soup as Art in Brooklyn. But by 1990, he had run up nearly $60,000 in football gambling looses, so he cashed out of the restaurant and moved to Los Angeles to pay down debt.

He took odd jobs in Hollywood before getting his big break: Director Benicio Del Toro cast Gannascoli in a short movie lead role around 1992 that led to his work in The Sopranos.

“I was extremely lucky,” Gannascoli said, adding that he had to “hustle and make things happen.” 

The chef and actor played the character of Vito Spatafore on The Sopranos.

He recalled how he would get up early each morning in LA and get the breakdowns, which are essentially notes on what casting directors want in terms of scenes, actors, and looks.

“I pretended to be a fictitious manager. I made calls and proceeded to get myself booked for auditions since my real agent was young and inexperienced.”

He explains that it was his suggestion to director David Chase to make Vito’s character gay.

He said this changed his life because it elevated Vito’s role from that of just a background guy to a recurring role.

Other movie credits include Men in Black 3, Beer League, and An Act of War, as well as a 2004 episode of the Law & Order TV series. 

While private chef parties keep him busy, Gannascoli continues to act. “I shot a pilot with actress Kate Bosworth last Thanksgiving. Still waiting for it to get picked-up,” he says.

Last year, during the height of the pandemic, Gannascoli decided to help struggling restaurants out.

He raised $35,000 via a GoFundMe campaign to buy food from restaurants and make hundreds of food deliveries to frontline workers on Long Island and in New York City.  He helped nursing homes, police departments, firefighters, and even postal workers. “I did those food deliveries for about seven weeks.” 

Last year, Gannascoli appeared on celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back with fellow Sopranos cast member Vincent Pastore. 

Despite that appearance, he is not enamored with celebrity chef cooking shows. 

“You come across some chefs who are temperamental and act badly…” He said many TV chefs “overact” for dramatic effect. “I’m not really a big fan of that stuff.”  

His private chef events have kept him busy, averaging two to three parties each week, mainly birthday parties and special occasions.  

Marita from Westbury had praise for Gannascoli’s culinary expertise, calling her husband’s surprise birthday bash an “unforgettable event with first-rate food.”   

Gannascoli can be reached about his Sopranos private chef events via Tri-State Restaurant Club on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. His email address is: jrg0215@aol.com.

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Juniper Restaurant at the Vanderbilt Opens With Seasoned Italian Chef Chris D’Ambrosio

juniper restaurant
Chris D'Ambrosio (Photo by Ed Shin)

Some chefs find themselves in the restaurant business by accident or ending up there while they were planning on a different career. But Juniper at the Vanderbilt’s executive chef Chris D’Ambrosio says the culinary arts found him at an early age. 

“I grew up in an Italian household, with a big family around the table that always seemed to be eating,” recalls D’Ambrosio, whose memories include growing tomatoes and eggplant in a garden in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn from the age of 5. He also recalls early inspiration working at an old Italian deli, serving classic dry cured pork cuts such as prosciutto and capicola

He explains that he didn’t pursue culinary arts until high school, when he had an opportunity to participate in a vocational program with study options to become an electrician, a plumber, or a chef. “Cooking suited me best. It kind of found me,” he says, adding that his instructors were mostly culinary school graduates. 

D’Ambrosio would go on to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie before landing a formative job at New York City venue Bouley, where he would spend nearly a decade working under the tutelage of acclaimed chef David Bouley. 

“I firmly believe that to become the best, you have to work with the best,” says D’Ambrosio, adding that while at Bouley he was constantly “growing and evolving” as a chef. 

“We used the finest ingredients and sourced both locally and globally. It never got boring.” 

D’Ambrosio explains that his goal was to be able to “cook without a recipe,” relying solely on his palate for guidance and inspiration. “Everything at Bouley was feel and taste,” he says, adding that his philosophy was to not follow a recipe. 

Still in his 30s, D’Ambrosio has packed a lot of culinary punch into his years, having discovered new cuisines in Japan, Italy and France during internships with chefs to expand his creative horizons. 

While at Bouley, he did several Anthony Bourdain-style trips abroad over a few years to learn cultures and cuisines. 

“The idea all along was to bring the experiences back to Bouley,” recalls D’Ambrosio. Following Bouley’s closure in 2017, he spent a couple of years at the Bedford Post Inn in Westchester, a gourmet restaurant and inn co-owned by actor Richard Gere.  

“At Bedford, I sourced produce, such as radishes and tomatoes, directly from local farmers. Many of the recipes were seasonal.” He recalls getting produce from Union Square Market in Manhattan. 

“That style of cooking is spontaneous, where Mother Nature determines the menu.” 

After a brief stint at Manhattan’s Le Bilboquet, D’Ambrosio says he was laid off due to Covid before taking over at the new Juniper restaurant at the Vanderbilt hotel and residences in Westbury.  

Juniper, which opened in late May, is the latest venue from restaurateur James Mallios and the Civetta Hospitality Group. Civetta also operates Amali in Manhattan, Calissa in the Hamptons and Bar Marseille in the Rockaways. 

At Juniper, D’Ambrosio says he wants to help build a “destination that’s different.” 

He says he plans to continue sourcing from local farms, including everything from fresh herbs and fruits such as strawberries to vegetables including peas and cucumbers. 

“Sustainability governs everything we do at Civetta, including the meat, fish and produce we purchase, the wines we pour, and our labor practices,” says Civetta partner Kylie Monagan. “We choose to focus on long-term business goals because we believe they benefit our local community and the larger ecosystem, supporting family farms, fisheries, and winemakers and providing job stability for our team.”

D’Ambrosio aims to integrate sustainability into “food he likes to eat,” and that, he says, is how he writes his menus. 

For example, one of his favorite dishes is the birria-style short ribs, influenced by Mexican birria herbs and stewed for hours, “like a deconstructed taco.” 

He adds that he’s procuring seafood directly from Montauk fishermen, such as blue crude marinated in tomato and cilantro. 

Monagan adds that the menu offers classic comforts including Cascun Farm Market fried chicken, six-cheese mac, and wild mushroom flatbread. Other specialties include hay-roasted oysters, Long Island Crescent Duck breast with Juniper honey, and Caraflex cabbage steak for vegans. 

A well-stocked bar features gin-inspired cocktails and classic wines including Sancerre, Chablis, and Napa chardonnay. 

D’Ambrosio, who has been cooking for more than 15 years, says his future will revolve around food, but he’s not sure he wants to own a restaurant since knows how much work and money go into successful ventures. 

He says, “You have to find a balance in life between making money and enjoying what you’re doing. That’s the secret.” 

Juniper at the Vanderbilt hotel and residences is located at 990 Corporate Dr. in Westbury. It can be reached at 516-820-1200 or juniperlongisland.com.

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Shah’s Halal Food on Long Island Strives to Be ‘McDonald’s of Halal’

shah's halal
"We're definitely going nationwide with this, it's just a matter of time," says Khalid Mashriqi.

For fans of food cart halal food, the question, “Hot sauce and white sauce?” has become as commonplace as, “Would you like fries with that?”

And, that’s part of the plan for Khalid Mashriqi, the CEO of the fast-growing Shah’s Halal Food, whose long-term goal is to become “the McDonald’s of halal.” 

But, given the company’s current quick rate of expansion, it’s a goal that might just be in reach. 

“There’s McDonalds, Arby’s, Subway and Wendy’s … but nothing for halal,” says Mashriqi, noting the current fast-food landscape.

The Arabic term “halal” refers generally to the specific permissible method of slaughtering animals in accordance with Islamic law. 

The company was started by Mashriqi’s father Ibrahim and two business partners, Shafiq Mashriqi and Rahimullah Mashriqi. Nearly 60 percent of Shah’s corporate staff is made up of family members. 

Khalid, now 37, came to the U.S. with his family from Afghanistan in the early 1980s. Since 2016, he has taken over all business operations.   

“We started this business in 2005, with just a single food cart on 121st Street and Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens,” he says. “We prepared all the foods at home, using a small kitchen and a garage, at first. Everything kicked off from there,” he says, adding, “We opened one and then another … until we arrived at where we are today.” 

Today, the company boasts 17 storefront locations across Long Island and two more on the way in Freeport and Stony Brook, as well as a network of both branded and unbranded food carts across New York City. Other locations include Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and California. Abroad there is also a United Kingdom operation with several food trucks operating under contract with the London transit system. 

Khalid, who graduated from Queens College with a degree in political science, says he had an “entrepreneurial mind” from early on. He spearheaded the branding of Shah’s Halal with the opening of storefront spots in 2016. 

Although most stores are now corporate owned, Khalid says “interest is high in franchises” and Shah’s plans to offer franchises soon.  

The price point is going to be affordable, he says, possibly in the $20,000 to 25,000 range up front, and then an ongoing percentage of store profits. 

Competition for halal fast-food consumers continues to grow across LI and beyond. Research firm Technavio says the U.S. halal market will grow by $8 billion through the end of 2024, fueled primarily by a rising U.S. Muslim population. 

However, Khalid says that most of his customers are non-Muslim and that most like the freshness of his food and the unique tastes. 

“From my experience, people also like the transparency of halal products and they also say they can actually taste a difference in the meat (this is what non-Muslims have told me over the years), and they like that there is a process that involves really understanding what is in the food’s ingredients and byproducts,” says Yvonne Maffei, author of My Halal Kitchen: Global Recipes, Cooking Tips and Lifestyle Inspiration.  

Maffei, who also pens a blog on halal cooking, has lectured about how the halal industry looks at ingredients through a food-science eye, remaining ever vigilant for doubtful or non-halal elements in things like breads, yogurt, or apple juice. “People find the process fascinating.”

Among Shah’s most popular dishes are the signature chicken and rice platter and gyros, which are core menu items in addition to chicken sandwiches, Philly cheesesteaks, hot wings, and burgers. 

All of Shah’s food is prepared in its own U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Jamaica, Mashriqi says.  

Even on LI there are now numerous purveyors of halal-style fare, from The Halal Brothers of New York in Floral Park to The Halal Guys in East Meadow. But Khalid says the difference is the food and how it’s prepared, using a superior brand of halal chicken and consistently marinating it with a unique blend of spices that competitors don’t use.

He adds that all of Shah’s sauces, from the popular white sauce to red and green hot sauces, are made from scratch.

Moreover, he says that he likely supplies about 80 to 90 percent of all the other halal operations on Long Island. 

Asked if he is concerned about increasing competition, Khalid says he’s confident in his product. 

 “We’re our greatest competition,” he says, noting that Shah’s is going up against the big guys. 

Looking ahead, Khalid envisions Shah’s locations across the country. “We’re definitely going nationwide with this, it’s just a matter of time,” he says, adding that the company has been steadily regrouping since Covid and solidifying its operations. He also plans to bring his special brand of halal to the United Arab Emirates.  

“All of the UAE is halal, but what differentiates us is our food. Nobody has our food, that’s what it comes down to. Our sauces, how everything is prepared … no one has it.”

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Restoration Kitchen & Cocktails in Lindenhurst Gives Back to Community

Billy Miller donates his restaurant’s profits to local nonprofits.

The motto at Restoration Kitchen & Cocktails restaurant in Lindenhurst is, “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.” 

For Restoration’s owner and executive chef Billy Miller, the motto is much more than aspirational. It has been his reality since opening in August 2018 on the former site of a

Lindenhurst civic organization, Old Fellows, whose mission was to anonymously give back to the needy.  

Miller, born and raised in nearby West Babylon, says the concept of Restoration is quite simple: “We give back to those people who really need it.”

The restaurant takes all its net profits every four months and gives them to local charities. Net profits are calculated after all other expenses, such as food vendors, utilities, and staff salaries, including his own, have come out. So far, Miller says, Restoration has donated more than $153,000 to local charities. 

Currently, the two recipient charities are Splashes of Hope, a group that paints murals for hospitals and healthcare centers, and Momma’s House, an organization that helps young mothers and babies in crisis. At the end of each meal at Restoration, diners are given the option of which charity they want the proceeds from their bill to be donated to. At each table, placards describe the charities being donated to and exactly who is being helped.

“They are always a Long Island charity,” Miller says.  “I don’t like to cross a bridge…There are enough people right on LI who need help.”

Miller, 37, says that Restoration has been years in the making, going back to his start in business at age 15. He recalls having an array of jobs, from busing tables and running food to operating a tiki bar on Myrtle Beach and then bartending at Del Fuego in Babylon Village for three years.  Unlike other chefs-turned-restaurant owners, Miller did not attend culinary school but utilized restaurant work to finance a master’s degree in counseling that led to a career in social work.  

“I got a job as a teacher, moved briefly to South Carolina and even taught at Myrtle Beach High School, coaching football and baseball,” he explains. 

Miller also worked as a social worker, helping kids with disabilities for nonprofit organizations including the Family Service League in Huntington and Bay Shore.  Miller says the impetus for Restoration came when he was working in the nonprofit world, where oftentimes top executives make high salaries at the expense of direct services for needy families.

He told his wife he wanted to continue to help people by using his skills as a social worker, but also wanted to return to the restaurant industry, his other passion. 

Miller says that while the pandemic has been challenging, they are adapting. Since Restoration’s indoors is too small to accommodate many diners, given current capacity limits, diners are comfortably seated and spaced in the restaurant’s parking lot greenhouse. 

“It was weird — they send you the pipes and you assemble it,” says Miller, noting the greenhouse took a month to complete, with ventilation and heating systems.   

He says the greenhouse gave his employees an opportunity to work when lots of other restaurants were giving up.

“So many restaurant employees were laid off for months and I refused to do that to my employees,” he recalls. 

Other challenges, Miller says, included difficulty getting food and products and having to pivot to delivery as well as developing an app for people to order items like to-go cocktails.  

Although Restoration has a full-time chef who handles most kitchen duties, Miller still helps. Specialties include a buffalo cauliflower appetizer, a chicken avocado sandwich made with anti-biotic free chicken and fresh baked bread, a surf and turf wrap, and a skirt steak quesadilla.  

“People appreciate our food because everything is homemade and fresh, from using a special blend of meat for burgers, from-scratch dressings and sauces, and even cocktails that are all-natural…made from fresh fruit,” he says.

Asked about the restaurant business as a career, Miller says it is a great business — but not for everyone. 

“This industry is physically and mentally taxing and you’ve got to be prepared to work 90 hours as a normal work week,” he says. “This is not a get-rich business … but if you have the time and energy to put into it, I believe it’s fantastic.”

Restoration restaurant is located at 49 East Hoffman Ave. in Lindenhurst. It can be reached at 631-592-1905 or restorationli.com.

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Upscale Sushi Restaurant Kissaki to Open New Location in Manhasset

sushi restaurant
Mark Garcia’s Kissaki restaurants specialize in high-end omakase sushi.

Mark Garcia was considered an outsider when he moved from his native Chicago to New York in 2016 to open his own restaurant. 

But now, Garcia is the driving force helping to steer the cuisine and growth of upscale omakase sushi restaurant Kissaki, which opened in the Hamptons in June and is set to open its sixth location in Manhasset this summer. 

Omakase sushi is a concept that requires diners to entrust the ingredients and presentation of their meal fully to the sushi chef; it has been compared to an artist creating a masterpiece. 

Garcia’s start in the restaurant world was humble enough. 

“I was in high school in Chicago and I enrolled in a culinary arts program in my sophomore year,” he recalls, adding that he got his first job through the program. 

A veritable tour of Chicago’s restaurant and hotel kitchen scene followed, with stints at Sushi Samba Rio, Kaze Sushi, the Waldorf Astoria, and Momotaro. 

Garcia first learned Italian cuisine early in his career and then began his ascent into the world of sushi under the 10-year tutelage of esteemed master sushi chef Kaze Chan of Sushi San in Chicago, who is credited with opening an array of influential sushi venues in Chicago for the past 25 years.

“I learned sushi from one of the masters,” says Garcia, 37. 

Following a successful run at Momotaro, Garcia moved to New York and in 2016, he and partner Jay Zheng opened Gaijin in Astoria. The name “Gaijin” literally means outsider in Japanese. 

The venue’s name was fitting for Garcia not only due to his Mexican roots but also because of doubts about his success compared to other master sushi chefs. 

But those doubts quickly fell by the wayside as Garcia developed a strong following for his innovatives.

In 2019, Garcia met Garry Kanfer, his current partner and Kissaki owner. 

“I was very enthusiastic to meet Garry because he wanted to build a brand and not just open a business,” Garcia recalls. 

Initially, Kanfer sought to make Kissaki a high-end establishment in the price range of $400, but Garcia said it was “too high for the average diner.”

“I wanted a more accessible price range,” Garcia said, noting that at the time in New York, there were two very different dynamics. 

“There was a $50 quick and easy sushi and then there were the $400-plus levels,” Garcia says, explaining that the latter felt a bit “stuffy, almost like a church.” The two settled on something “in the middle” for Kissaki, with prices more in the $150 range.  

But with the first Kissaki location opening in January 2020, Garcia said the pandemic turned things on their head. 

He recalled that at first, his spirits were somewhat crushed between lockdowns and limited crowd capacities, especially since things had been going so well when they first opened. 

Like many other restaurants, Kissaki, which now has three locations in New York City, one in Connecticut, and one in Water Mill, has had to pivot during the pandemic, which meant offering takeout omakase boxes in small, medium and large.

Popular takeout boxes include nigiri featuring tuna, salmon, mackerel, and even red snapper. 

Garcia says that Kissaki is also using innovative robots at all locations to help expedite the labor-intensive process of making sushi and especially takeout boxes. “The robots have been a great tool for us to use to get ahead,” he adds. The tools are commonly used in Japan but rarely by city restaurants. 

Specialties Garcia prepares include seasonal fish such as tuna and salmon with banana peppers and chives. 

“Our fish is sourced directly from Japanese suppliers,” Garcia says, adding that Kissaki has relationships with farmers and harvesters. 

The menu also features creative cocktails such as a kissaki kick or green lantern as well as signature desserts like dulce de leche or matcha red bean chiffon cake. 

Asked about business now, Garcia says it continues to be very “up and down.” He adds, “we’ve struggled as all restaurants have.” 

And, even though Garcia says things are improving daily at Kissaki, he still believes it is a difficult business. 

“Restaurants are tough to work in…I’m surprised people even still want to open them,” he says. “The numbers are tough and profit margins are thin. Now with the pandemic, things are even worse.” 

Kissaki Manhasset will open this summer at 411 Plandome Rd. Visit explorekissaki.com

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Hooks & Chops Chef Cooks Up Positivity Through Tough Times

Hooks & Chops
Steven Del Lima opened Hooks & Chops in Commack despite the pandemic.

Opening a new restaurant can be challenging even in the best of times, but opening up in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century is definitely not for the faint of heart. 

Steven Del Lima, executive chef and owner of Hooks & Chops, a seafood and steak house in Commack, admits he was definitely “thrown a curveball” and has had to “adjust on the fly” since opening his doors in October. 

“I’m a very positive thinker and I believe that all things happen for a reason,” he says. 

Those adjustments include making sure his restaurant, formerly a 5,000-square-foot Ruby Tuesday’s, is replete with the latest in safety protocols including using enhanced filtration HEPA filters, numerous sanitizing stations, widely spaced tables, and dividers. 

“By far, from a financial stance and also just keeping up with all the latest Covid safety guidelines to make sure people feel safe, this venture has been the most challenging restaurant ever,” says Del Lima, who has worked at various venues and helped open several spots for other people. 

But Del Lima, 48, remains positive and says he has wanted to open the Hooks & Chops version of a seafood chophouse for quite a while and is pressing forward regardless of obstacles. 

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in 1993, Del Lima says his interest in cooking goes back to his childhood at home in Massachusetts, when he could often be found in the kitchen helping with cooking, baking, or barbeques.

“I was always the one flipping the burgers on the grill,” he recalls. 

Del Lima’s start in the restaurant business began with a job as a dishwasher, then at age 16 he got his first line cook job.  

After graduating from culinary school, Del Lima was offered a job by one of his CIA instructors at a restaurant in Hackensack, N.J., called the Stony Hill Inn. 

He quickly became a saucier chef at the Stony Hill Inn and would eventually move to New York City, where he made the rounds at elite venues including Gramercy Tavern, Le Bernardin, and Daniel. He also was a managing partner and executive chef at White Oak Oyster Bar & Lounge in Manhattan. 

“I learned as much as I could from some of the best chefs in the world,” Del Lima explains. 

As a resident of Long Island since about 2000, Del Lima has also made his mark at several Huntington venues, including Wild Fin, Black & Blue Seafood, and Piccolo Mondo. 

“I got the idea for Hooks & Chops when I was with Black & Blue Seafood in Huntington,” he says. “I’ve had a passion for the seafood/chophouse concept for a while and I really wanted a place that was centrally located for Islanders.”

Current specialties include wild Alaskan cedar-plank roasted halibut, sweet Thai chili calamari, blue crab beignets, mussel pots, New York strip steak frites with duck fat fries, and a 22-ounce cowboy rib eye steak, prime dry-aged using a unique process with black Hawaiian lava salt, yielding a smoky flavor. 

Signature desserts Del Lima says are popular include bagged dropped doughnuts, served with cinnamon and powdered sugar; his version of milk and cookies, which are homemade chocolate chip cookies served with a dolce de leche milkshake, and new-fashioned baked Alaska.

Asked about his business flow since opening, Del Lima explains he’s “pretty lucky,” and that he has been fairly busy. 

“My reputation has helped; even though we can only seat at 50 percent, it hasn’t been too bad,” he says.  

He says, though that in early February, business dropped a bit because Covid rates in New York State started to spike again.

Del Lima says he knows lots of people in the restaurant business who will not make it out of the current crisis. He believes it’s important to support local businesses as much as possible now. 

“Without my customer base, I don’t have a business,” he admits.  

However, while Del Lima thinks it will take a while to get back to some normalcy, he feels it will happen. 

“You just have to stay positive.” 

Hooks & Chops is at 6330 Jericho Tpke. in Commack. It can be reached at 631-600-0521 or hooksandchops.com

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Hook & Reel Helps Grow Cajun Seafood Cuisine Trend on Long Island

cajun cuisine
Fat Tuesday revelers will be seeking out Cajun food this February.

Amid a flurry of new restaurants opening across Long Island in the past couple of years, Cajun seafood is an increasingly popular cuisine among diners seeking not just a meal, but a savory and fun dining experience. 

Hook & Reel Cajun Seafood & Bar in Hicksville, which opened in July 2019, is part of a growing Cajun seafood trend on LI and across the country. The 127-seat restaurant is located inside Broadway Mall.

“We like to think we’re responsible for the current Cajun seafood trend,” says Ed O’Grady, regional director of operations. Nationwide, there are 47 franchise locations from New York to California.  

The company, founded in Maryland eight years ago, also has a location in Valley Stream and one coming soon in Bay Shore. 

O’Grady refers to the meal service as “a communal experience, where people come together and it’s fun to eat.” 

Indeed, when one of Hook’s popular Cajun seafood dishes filled with snow crab legs, crawfish, clams, mussels, and shrimp hits your table, it makes quite an impression. 

“When the seafood boil comes out, it’s like a big bag of deliciousness, with all the intriguing aromas and flavors as the bag is tossed and the seafood is coated in the varied mild, medium or hot sauces,” O’Grady explains. “It’s a very sensory experience.” 

Cajun cooking originated in the swamps and bayous of southern Louisiana by French settlers who migrated there from Canada, and used unique blends of spices including bell, black and cayenne peppers to season seafood and stews.  

“We like to think we’re responsible for the current Cajun seafood trend,” says Ed O’Grady.

O’Grady thinks some of the cuisine’s allure is due to “unique flavors and the fact that it’s highly shareable.” 

He adds that food comes very quickly out of the kitchen, which is organized using a manager who schedules and maintains standards among the line cooks who man a fry side and a boil side.

Pamela Raskin, Hook & Reel’s director of marketing & brand, agrees that the trend of Cajun seafood is growing “out of control.” 

She says that competition on LI is helping to further popularize the cuisine. “Normally, more competition is bad, but not in this case.”

Tina Zhang, a franchise partner at Hook & Reel in Hicksville, says she and her partners had wanted to open a restaurant, but weren’t sure how to do it. 

“So, we started looking into different franchise options. Friends of ours had a Hook & Reel and they talked about how smooth the opening process was, and that they’ve received support ever since,” Zhang recalled. “It made our decision super easy — plus it doesn’t hurt that we’re seafood lovers too!”

Diners can select from a varied seafood menu including custom-made boils with crab, mussels, lobster, and shrimp or opt for specialties like flounder or chicken po’boys, New England clam chowder, catfish sliders, crab bites, or steamed oysters. 

Extras include corn on the cob, potatoes, and andouille sausage, all served with Hook’s made-from-scratch Cajun sauces. 

But, says O’Grady, as with all restaurants, the pandemic has had a big impact. 

“We’ve all gotten a big wake-up call,” he says, adding that the Hicksville location was closed from mid-March until May 11.  

“We took a massive hit in sales, right out of the gate,” O’Grady recalls. 

Hook & Reel uses enhanced safety protocols such as socially distanced indoor dining, temperature checks for employees, and regular disinfecting across all its locations. 

Raskin explains that one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic was having to rapidly build third-party delivery partnerships with platforms such as DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub, just to survive. 

She says that many Hook & Reel locations had to shut down since no reliable delivery platform was in place. “Before Covid hit, the company was on track to open 100 locations by 2020.” 

But O’Grady says things are looking much better now with many new locations opening soon, including more in the tri-state area such as the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Yonkers. “Our business is now consistent and steady.”

On a recent Sunday, business was brisk with a steady flow of dine-in customers, including one woman, Marita, who was dining at a nearby table and sampling a crab bite.

Asked about the food, she admitted it was her first time at a Hook & Reel. 

“I really like the experience,” she said. “I will definitely be back.” 

Hook & Reel Cajun Seafood & Bar is located at 363 Broadway Mall in Hicksville. It can be reached at 516-719-0388 or hookreel.com

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Danny’s Chinese Kitchen in Bellmore Expanding on Long Island

danny's chinese kitchen
"We're obsessed with customer service, cleanliness, and quality food,” says David Antin.

Danny’s Chinese Kitchen in Bellmore may look like a typical mom-and-pop Chinese takeout, nearly ubiquitous across Long Island, but the reality is quite different. 

The restaurant, which opened six years ago, is owned by two Jewish brothers from Merrick, Danny and David Antin. 

“Some people come in and see us behind the counter and they look confused as to whether we’re a real Chinese restaurant,” says David, joking. 

The origins of Danny’s can be traced back to the Rockaways, where the brothers were raised. As Danny tells it, he started working at a local Chinese restaurant while attending college at Long Island University. 

The restaurant, East Meets West, happened to be owned by a family friend and retired NYPD detective, Bill Keating. Keating, who still owns East Meets West and has been in the business for 25 years, recalls Danny as a “sweetheart, one of the best.” He explains that Danny started out as a counter person and then learned “the ways of the kitchen, forging strong personal relationships with the chefs and kitchen workers.”

Keating helped Danny before he opened Danny’s Chinese Kitchen. Unbeknownst to Danny, his past relationships at East Meets West would prove vital to the new restaurant. 

Before Danny’s existed, both Danny, 36, and his brother David, 45, were working as accountants. Danny worked for eight years for a large public accounting firm while David had a successful 20-year career in finance. 

When Danny pondered a career change, David recalled Danny saying he was “never happier” than when he worked at the Chinese takeout place. And David recalled people in his neighborhood lamenting the lack of “good Chinese food” in the area. 

That helped steer Danny to the restaurant business, and with David as a silent partner, Danny’s opened its first location in 2014. Danny even tapped the former chef at East Meets West, Mr. Lin, to take over kitchen duties, although Danny would continue to help with cooking. 

As Danny’s got busier, it became evident that he needed help. So, it was natural that David, who was wrapping up his career in finance, would join Danny as a full-time partner in the business in March 2019. 

But then the pandemic arrived with the new year and threatened to derail the restaurant’s strong growth. Danny’s closed on March 16 for 35 days due to concerns for the staff and customers alike. 

From January through March, the brothers say their business was down by almost 40 percent because people thought “they could get Covid-19 from eating Chinese food.” 

“People were scared,” David recalls. He added that they had to work through various fears of people regarding touching surfaces, bags, etc. 

He says that being entrenched in the community and hiring mostly local employees meant taking precautions seriously, including buying high-quality masks and using enhanced cleaning protocols. When Danny’s reopened in mid-April, David said they had to take matters into their own hands because few workers were available.  

“At one point, we were driving a truck to our Hicksville warehouse and getting all of our food supplies since things were so stalled due to Covid-19,” David says, recalling how he smelled like “raw chicken,” on most days. “People were dying for Chinese food…they hadn’t had it for months and we wanted to be there for the community.” 

But, despite Covid-19, the brothers opened a new location in Massapequa in May of this year, near another former Chinese takeout, Chow Superb Chinese Food.  

“We couldn’t get any contractors to come out, so we did much of the work on this spot ourselves, including painting and electrical work,” David notes.  

And the brothers’ expansion plans aren’t yet complete, as they are planning an Oceanside location, set to open in 2021. 

Danny’s varied menu includes more than a few hundred items to choose from, including specialties such as sesame chicken, beef with broccoli, General Tso’s chicken, salmon Hunan style, spare ribs, and special creations, such as pastrami and apple pie egg rolls.  

“We’re obsessed with customer service, cleanliness, and quality food that includes getting daily shipments of fresh vegetables, chicken and meat,” David says, explaining what makes Danny’s different.

He also adds that their prices are comparable to most other Chinese takeouts. 

“We’re not reinventing Chinese food,” he says, “but we’re doing it right.” 

Danny’s Chinese Kitchen is located at 2370 Merrick Rd., Bellmore 516-783-9000 and 20 Broadway, Massapequa 516-809-9970. Visit at dannyschinesekitchen.com.

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Akbar Presses On Serving Up Iconic Indian Cuisine

Chef Reddy cooks up Indian cuisine at Akbar in Garden City (Photo by Ed Shin)

Akbar, a majestic-looking Indian restaurant in Garden City, is very much a family affair that traces its inspiration back to the 16th century in northern India, where royal Indian Mogul Akbar dined in grand surroundings. 

The restaurant’s owner, Meena Chopra, recalls that it was her father, A.N. Malhotra, who opened the first Akbar in New York City in 1976. He followed with other locations abroad including in Japan, Trinidad, and London.

“Watching my father build his career in the restaurant industry, I was always intrigued by the thought of running my own one day,” says Chopra, who was born in India and came to New York in 1976.  

Recalling the family’s history, Chopra says that after her father had returned to India, both she and her brother, Pradeep Malhotra, wanted to continue the legacy their father had worked hard to build in the city. 

“I opened up an Akbar on Long Island and my brother opened one in Edison, New Jersey,” she says, adding that she has always enjoyed the customer service aspect of the business. “I am so fortunate that we have built such a strong customer base, some of whom have become so close, they are like family.” 

Akbar first opened on LI in 1984, located on Ring Road near the Roosevelt Field Mall, before moving to the venue’s present Garden City location in 2001, on the site of a spacious, former healthcare supplies warehouse.

Fast forward to 2020 and Chopra explains that, like countless other restaurants across the region, her business has been hit “very hard” by the COVID-19 crisis. 

Staffing levels had to be reduced from a normal of about 30 employees to around 10. In addition to curtailing the regular flow of diners, Chopra says that her catering business for banquets, weddings, anniversaries and birthdays has been all but idelined. 

“Right now, we’re just trying to manage the takeout along with the outdoor dining,” she says, adding that although they never did close, even back in March, when many others were shuttered, staying afloat has been tough. 

“Our wedding business was not happening at all,” Chopra explains.  “There were almost no large gatherings happening and that took its toll on business.” 

Indoors, the restaurant has put cabanas in place, 12 feet apart, in order to better distance diners and outside there is a large patio area that spans the perimeter of the restaurant, where tables are at least 10 feet apart. Health guidelines mandate a minimum of six feet between tables.  

Ramit Malhotra, Chopra’s son, who handles consulting and management duties at Akbar, relates that outdoor dining has been fairly steady during the week and better on weekends. 

“It’s hard to operate on just takeout business,” he says, adding that Akbar can comfortably seat about 60 diners outside. “I’m hopeful, however, that our business is coming back … it’s just a matter of if and when this virus is stopped or at least controlled.” 

Lately, he says he’s been getting inquiries about catering operations for weddings, normally catered at nearby locations such as Crest Hollow Country Club and the Marriott Hotel, for anywhere between 400 and 500 people.  

Akbar also joined local efforts to help to feed frontline healthcare workers at hospitals nearby, including St. Francis Hospital and Northwell Health Manhasset. 

“We donated food but we just wanted to help and didn’t really want to call attention to the fact we were helping,” Chopra explains. “It was the right thing to do.”

In the kitchen, Akbar’s executive chef “Reddy” says he studied to be a chef in India, receiving a degree in kitchen technology. 

“Most of our staff have been working here more than 10 years,” he says, joking that “they don’t want to leave. There must be a magnet that keeps them here.”

Reddy himself is an Akbar veteran of almost seven years, who says he continues to refine and improve the menu and dishes. 

Specialties include specially marinated New Zealand lamb chop cooked in a charcoal oven; chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, biryani, lamb curry, and spicy vindaloo dishes, which are among peoples’ favorites.

Reddy also supervises other cooks at Akbar’s numerous banquet functions. “Reddy multitasks very well,” says Malhotra. 

Overall, Chopra says she is “very grateful and blessed to have such a good team.” 

Chopra adds that she wants to reassure diners that Akbar is taking all necessary precautions to keep everyone safe during these challenging times. 

“We are doing whatever we can and just hope things get back to normal soon.” 

Akbar is located at 2 South St. in Garden City. It can be reached at 516-357-8300 or theakbar.com

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