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Victor LaPlaca, Chef at Haviland Kitchen & Bar, Reflects on His Cooking Journey

haviland kitchen & bar

Alexander Graham Bell famously coined the expression, “When one door closes, another opens.” Veteran chef Victor LaPlaca counts himself a believer because that’s exactly how his Haviland Kitchen & Bar in East Rockaway came to be. 

In 2020, LaPlaca, along with millions of other restaurant workers across the country, had lost his job overseeing food and beverage operations at NeueHouse, a collective workspace in New York City, due to the pandemic. The New York State Restaurant Association has estimated that more than 8,000 restaurants in New York State closed due to the pandemic. 

“I was discussing the idea of doing some catering with my longtime friend Don Poland. We even talked about possibly doing some type of food-truck operation,” says LaPlaca, 49, who grew up in Lynbrook. 

LaPlaca says that while he knew he could likely return to NeueHouse once businesses started to reopen, he had already been contemplating his next move before the pandemic hit. He said, “I didn’t want to do what I was doing for someone else any longer.” 

Working with his partner Poland, whom he met decades earlier while working at Michael’s Porthole Restaurant in East Rockaway, LaPlaca found available space on Main Street, the former site of Nikki’s Bakery. “We built the place and ended up putting much more time and money in than we originally thought,” LaPlaca explains. 

LaPlaca credits his wife, Melinda, for the name Haviland Kitchen, which refers to local entrepreneur Joseph Haviland, who built a grist mill in 1688 for milling grains. The area became a town square with a public oven that people used to bake their own bread after milling their grains at the mill.  

“I thought Haviland was a great name for a restaurant where casual, American food is the focus,” LaPlaca says. 

When he was growing up, LaPlaca used to visit his Sicilian grandparents’ farm in upstate New York. Their huge garden with fresh veggies including corn and heirloom tomatoes helped cultivate his appreciation for cooking and Italian cuisine. 

“Food was a huge part of my upbringing,” he notes. Following high school, he attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park.

“Culinary school was very intense but it taught me discipline because you’re in school with people who are already working in restaurants,” he recalls. 

Following school, LaPlaca’s career took him all over the country. He worked through the 1990s under the direction of celebrity chef/entrepreneur Todd English at an array of English’s restaurants including the acclaimed Olives in Boston and Las Vegas, and in New York at the W New York – Union Square. He also served as corporate executive chef of Todd English Enterprises, overseeing all existing restaurants, and leading back-of-house teams for all new restaurant openings.

“When I worked at the original Olives in Boston, I learned all about food and bold flavors. It was an incredible place to work,” LaPlaca says, adding that his former boss was ambitious with his offerings. “He had 20 specials per night, on top of a packed menu that already had 30 items on it.”

LaPlaca also did a stint as executive chef at the Isola Trattoria in the now-defunct Mondrian Hotel in SoHo from 2011 to 2016. 

LaPlaca, who specializes in Italian cuisine but also cooks many other types of food, says he wants to “stay true to using locally sourced ingredients.” 

“I want to elevate and educate people about food, such as our lamb spareribs, which are big sellers on the menu.” As chef/owner of the 50-seat venue, which opened in December, LaPlaca will be doing most of the cooking. 

Signature dishes already getting rave reviews include cast-iron chicken, marinated in parsley and garlic with roasted Yukon potatoes; roasted pork shank with polenta, truffle-cabbage and apple-cider glaze, and monkfish piccata with braised artichokes, white wine, lemon, and capers. 

Appetizers spotlight Long Island-sourced oysters Rockaway and the Haviland salad, a shareable dish made with romaine, mozzarella, and cranberry-bean red onions in balsamic vinaigrette. 

Asked about the current spate of celebrity chef cooking shows, LaPlaca says they benefit the business. 

“I think the celebrity chef phenomenon is great because it educates people about different aspects of food,” he says, adding that he appeared on Iron Chef America with Todd English. 

“I want to be successful, not famous. It’s too crazy and too draining to be a big celebrity chef. I like to be honest to food I’m preparing, and create a good experience for people.”  

Regarding the ongoing pandemic, LaPlaca had familiar complaints about rising food costs, supply chain issues, and persistent trouble finding restaurant staff. 

But he remains optimistic that both residents and good reviews/word of mouth will help drive traffic.   

“We’re literally a mom-and-pop restaurant — we’re right on Main Street,” LaPlaca says. 

 “I also want people to come from other places, but I want to make it worth their while.” 

Haviland Kitchen & Bar is located at 43 Main Street in East Rockaway. It can be reached at 516-612-4545. Visit at havilandkitchen.com.

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Chef Stephen Gallagher, of The Trattoria, Talks Owning St. James Restaurant

the trattoria
Chef Stephen Gallagher. (Courtesy WordHampton Public Relations)

Chef Stephen Gallagher took the road less traveled on his way to a career in the kitchen and as eventual owner of rustic Italian cuisine venue The Trattoria in St. James. 

Gallagher, 43, recalls collecting shopping carts in the parking lot of a King Kullen supermarket. “It was cold out there and someone quit from the bakery and they asked me if I wanted to work inside and I said sure,” he says, adding that although he wasn’t baking, it was good just to work inside. 

However, baking would not be in his future. 

Gallagher says a friend told him about a restaurant in Stony Brook, The Country House, that was looking for a cook. “I just showed up there and got hired,” he says, recalling that he learned many different aspects of cooking from that first job. “I realized I had a natural aptitude for cooking.”

And while Gallagher did attend formal culinary school at NYIT, he’s not a fan of would-be chefs making it a priority. 

“I tell young cooks not to go the culinary school route because all in all, you’ll learn what you need to know about cooking by working in a restaurant and not necessarily in a classroom,” he explains. Gallagher says the main reason he discourages culinary school is the high cost.

Before purchasing The Trattoria in 2013 from owner Eric Lomondo, Gallagher had formative cooking experiences at several local LI restaurants, including Star Boggs in Westhampton and The Jamesport Manor Inn. 

He also spent time in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as chef de cuisine at The Buccaneer Terrace Restaurant on St. Croix before moving to Colorado to work under Chef Bertrand Bouquin at The Summit Restaurant of The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. 

“The Broadmoor hotel had a very high-end restaurant,” Gallagher recalls, having seen both former vice president Dick Cheney and motivational speaker Tony Robbins at events there. 

In 2009, Gallagher went to work for chef Eric Lomondo at his causal family of restaurants, which include Orto in Miller Place. 

He started as chef de cuisine at Kitchen a Bistro, before becoming executive chef of Kitchen a Trattoria. Then in November 2013, Gallagher purchased the restaurant from Lomondo, and renamed it The Trattoria. 

Gallagher explains that some of the biggest challenges owning The Trattoria include the steep learning curve going from being executive chef to owning the place. 

“I thought I knew everything about the restaurant business but there was a lot to learn. That initial first year, getting my bearings, figuring out which way was up, was a real challenge.”

He also credits his friend Lomondo for giving him muchneeded support during that time. “Going from employee to owner is a huge difference and Eric helped me out a lot,” he says.

When Covid hit, Gallagher says he shortened his days open from 7 to 5 and at first had to lay off several staffers while pivoting to handle takeout only. “Unfortunately, though, the takeout business wasn’t really enough to cover my expenses, so I did take a hit financially.” 

But he says that the St. James community is “great place to operate a business” because the residents are so supportive, adding that people show up several times a week for dinner. 

Gallagher adds that he continues to figure things out and that being a small business helps; his 28-seat restaurant has low overhead.   

Asked about current business, he says he is “just about back” to where he was before the pandemic. 

However, staffing shortages and high prices have also affected daily operations. 

“I can’t even get a dishwasher…and I’m offering good money too.” 

“I don’t know that people want to do it anymore,” says Gallagher, referring to staff working in the restaurant industry. 

He also says that food prices are “through the roof, everything is absurd. Imported foods are especially high due to import tariffs.” 

But despite pandemic-induced setbacks, Gallagher’s expertly prepared cuisine continues to not only attract but fill The Trattoria to capacity on any given night. 

An extremely hands-on owner, Gallagher makes it a point to come out from behind the open kitchen and personally greet his customers and ask every diner how everything is.

Highly rated specialties include red wine brasato (braised beef) with creamy polenta, black pasta with calamari and spicy tomato, pork loin with farro, lasagna Bolognese, and Montauk fluke with vegetables. 

For dessert, everything is made in-house and includes a flourless chocolate almond cake served with vanilla gelato and Nutella pound cake, also served with vanilla gelato.

Although no cocktails are served, a full wine list is available. 

Asked about plans for The Trattoria, Gallagher says simply, “I’m just working on keeping it all going.” 

532 N Country Rd, St James. It can be reached at 631-584-3518.  Visit at thetrattoriarestaurant.com. Cash-only, reservations are required. 

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Historic Milleridge Inn Cooks Up Tradition

Chef Chris Seidl (Photo by Jennifer Uihlein)

Even though the historic Milleridge Inn in Jericho is not designated as an official landmark, its origins on Long Island can be traced back to before the time of the Revolutionary War, when the 11-acre property was used as a stopover for farmers, merchants, and other weary travelers along what is now Jericho Turnpike.  

“The original property dates back to 1672…the history of the place says Milleridge has had presidents eating there, settlers, British and Hessian soldiers, and even an underground bootlegging operation during the prohibition era,” says Butch Yamali, president of the Freeport-based Dover Group. 

Yamali purchased the Milleridge in 2016 from Kimco Realty, effectively saving the centuries-old property from becoming either a hotel, retirement community, or another commercial entity.   

“We’ve got everything back online, we updated the menu…we wanted to maintain the Milleridge history,” says Yamali. 

The sprawling Milleridge complex is an impressive property able to accommodate about 1,000 diners. It also features a catering hall, cafe, pub, bakery, flower shop, and general store. 

No stranger to the hospitality business, Yamali founded his Dover Group in 1976 from just a couple of ice cream trucks. Today, the company owns and operates several local businesses and restaurants including Peter’s Clam Bar in Island Park and the Coral House in Baldwin.

“I’ve made it a practice to take over once-great places that have lost their luster, where owners have either aged out or lost interest in upkeep,” says Yamali.  

Yamali says he is a self-taught chef who didn’t go to culinary school but has worked in many of his father’s restaurant kitchens since the age of 14. “I did lots of roasting and curing meats in the places I worked at,” he says, noting that his father owned the gourmet meats shop Pastrami King in Queens when Butch was growing up.

“I’m now 59, I’ve been doing this stuff for the past 45 years, working in nearly every position you can imagine.”

Ironically, Yamali says he doesn’t really like cooking and that is where executive chef Chris Seidl comes in.

Seidl, who grew up in Syosset, also didn’t go to culinary school. He began cooking at a small cafe in Utica while attending Mohawk Valley Community College. “I took a liking to the kitchen and that was it,” he recalls. 

Seidl has been with Yamali for the past 13 years, starting off at the Maliblue Oyster Bar in Lido Beach. He now oversees most aspects of cooking, menu planning and other logistics for all of Dover’s properties.  

Seidl says the Milleridge is something special. “What is unique about the Milleridge is that everything we make is from scratch, from the fresh-baked popovers and cinnamon bread to turkeys we roast and sauerbraten that is brined for at least two weeks…it’s a traditional, homestyle cooking restaurant,” says Seidl. 

Milleridge specialties include chicken Milleridge, Yankee pot roast, sauerbraten, fresh-roasted turkey with all the trimmings, chicken pot pie, salads, and burgers. “We sell thousands of meals every week,” says Yamali, explaining that anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 people per day can be fed when the restaurant is very busy. 

In 2015, Restaurant Business Magazine ranked the Milleridge as one of America’s top 100 restaurants with about $14 million in annual sales. 

Yamali says by the end of 2017, sales had nearly doubled and continued to rise into 2018. 

But then Covid-19 came along and put a severe crimp in business. 

“We want to get things back to where we were,” Yamaha says, adding that a confluence of staff shortages and high-priced goods has continued to hamper business. 

But things are looking up. 

Yamali says that now all the complex’s structures are now up to code with just a few more things that still need work. 

However, he says labor shortages have continued to plague the venue along with many other restaurants on Long Island. 

Yamali has cut back hours to try and help matters. The restaurant is now open only five days per week, from Wednesday to Sunday, to help address persistent labor shortages and still allow staff to take much-needed days off. 

He says that as staffing issues ease, he’ll add staff and extend the hours.

“Some of my staff never returned after the closures in 2020, some got real estate licenses, still other staffers are leaving the restaurant business altogether, and still others have moved out of state completely for lower costs of living,” Yamali says.  

In addition, he points to food prices that have doubled in many cases. “Filet mignon used to be about $10 pound, now it’s nearly $20. But I can’t raise my prices because that might mean losing business.” 

He adds that while most things are picking up, larger parties are still lagging. “People don’t want grandma to come out of the house yet,” he says, adding that catered events are still slow, such as weddings and bridal showers. 

“When it’s busy, there’s nothing like it. But when it’s quiet, you want to cry because it’s such a big place.”  

He says, however, that Thanksgiving orders and reservations are brisk, and that’s a “good sign.” 

Diners can also look forward to a traditional favorite, the Milleridge Christmas Village, which will feature an elaborate array of music, decorations, and holiday festivities. 

585 N. Broadway in Jericho. It can be reached at 516-931-2201. Visit at milleridgeinn.com.

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From Fishing Marina to Seafood Restaurant, The Buoy Bar Spans Generations

the buoy bar
L to R: Matthew Doheny, Jeane Magan, Thomas Doheny, Roberta Doheny, and Andrew Doheny. (Photo by Jennifer Uihlein)

The Buoy Bar, known for its great seafood and creative cocktails, didn’t happen quickly. It was more than 90 years in the making, having evolved slowly from its humble beginnings as Scotty’s Fishing Station.

“Scotty’s Fishing Station started it all back in 1929,” says Jeane Magan, general manager of The Buoy Bar and part of the five-generations-long family business.

She says that Scotty’s was more of a marina, where people could pick up bait/tackle and rent boats.

“As time went on, Scotty’s slowly evolved and focused more and more on food and beverages,” Magan recalls. She adds that as late as 1999, when The Buoy Bar got its unofficial start, “We were still renting out a few skiffs.” But a few short years later, the skiffs went, and the venue’s food became the focus.

Photo by Jennifer Uihlein.

In fact, the main Buoy Bar kitchen is also the former engine room, where engines were stored as part of Scotty’s Fishing Station.

Magan says that while she continues to manage the bar, her parents Roberta and Tom Doheny are still involved in the business, as are Magan’s four brothers.

“We are a real family-type establishment; everyone works at the bar either on a part-time or full-time basis,” she explains.

Her brother Andrew now runs Scotty’s, which is adjacent to The Buoy Bar and still is a go-to destination for fuel, bait, and tackle as well as a similar yet more streamlined seafood menu.

“Scotty’s menu is a mini-Buoy Bar menu but more kid friendly,” says Magan, adding that they also have a full bar and concession-style menu featuring quesadillas, pizza, and tacos. “Scotty’s has a smaller menu but just as good.”

In The Buoy Bar kitchen is Magan’s brother, Matthew, who creates and executes a seasonal menu full of fresh seafood, such as steamers in white-wine basil broth, mussels in marinara or buffalo sauces, or a house special lobster pizza, described as a gigantic lobster roll, pizza style.

“It’s a thick-crust pizza with fresh arugula, lobster cream sauce, and lots of lobster meat,” Magan says.

Matt was originally just supposed to help out in the kitchen but he quickly leaned into the head chef spot.

“Matt reads cooking magazines and does lots of food-related research. He does a great job,” she says.

Other customer favorite dishes include a crab cake-bacon-grilled cheese sandwich in addition to an always-fresh fish of the day such as swordfish, striped bass, flounder, salmon, and scallops.

Asked about how the bar managed during Covid, Magan said they had to transform to do takeout.

She says they were initially closed for a short time but then had a difficult conversion to takeout.

Magan explained that they had nothing ready to do takeout. “Our bartenders became drivers because they needed work.”

She says that during the summer of 2020, they offered service to boats, which helped because they didn’t have enough room inside the bar to properly distance tables.

“We did our full menu for boats in the summer and then for winter, we used igloos, heaters, and globes, since the winter restrictions allowed us only four tables inside. We survived.”

She added that they had to buy all the little things, from to-go condiments like ketchup and mustard to salt and pepper packages. “Takeout kept all our people employed and kept us in business.”

She says that food costs across the board have all risen due to the pandemic. “A case of chicken wings is more, scallops, cups, straws, gloves … everything has gone up in price.”

However, she also says that businesswise, they are almost back to pre-pandemic levels, noting that they are “very weather dependent.”

Looking ahead, plans are in place to expand the bar’s kitchen to better serve customers.

“We’re a total family business that basically evolved from serving burgers out of Scotty’s to what we are now … a full-blown restaurant.”

The Buoy Bar Waterfront Grill is located at 72 Bayside Dr. in Point Lookout. It can be reached at 516-432-3975 Visit at buoybarli.com.

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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

sopranos
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

restoration
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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