Dad and Son Spend Big Dough on Family Owned Trattoria
By Steve Viuker
The Upper East Side of Manhattan can be a retail dream. Families and singles with money to spend. But the small shop now has to compete with the chain stores.
Toscano’s (formerly Totonno’s) is one example. For this newly opened, family-owned restaurant the challenge isn’t just about standing out amongst the chain store offerings but differentiating itself in a sea of pizza that is all around the E.80th street location; from the small shops to Papa John’s. Nearby are the online take-out sites and a recent trend: shops selling pizza for 99 cents a slice. Pizza has always been a staple of New York neighborhoods. And while chains like Domino’s now are pushing ‘artisanal’ pies, there is still room for the old masters.
Making room for himself in this affluent neighborhood was the goal of co-owner Benny Nrecaj, a former Lehman Brothers employee who wanted to tap into the mix of young families and singles and offer a unique and appealing menu at prices that are very moderate for the Upper East Side. He was interested in offering the neighborhood something familiar, pizza, in a back to the basics way. He remarks on his competition, “It’s amazing when I see how many uninformed consumers are out there, all of these 99cents slice joints are opening up all around the city and people have no clue what ingredients are thrown into that pizza to be able to be sold for 99 cents. This bothers me because cheap flours, tomatoes and cheeses lead to obesity and other health issues. Pizza is not meant to be a “Junk Food ” item, it definitely gives you health benefits, when done right, I can attest that I have lost weight and eat pizza almost daily.”
Nrecaj and his father Andre have been laser focused on developing the right menu and creating an inviting atmosphere. He explains, “My dad has decades in the pizza industry. We spent over $300,000 upgrading the space and adding new items normally not found in a ‘pizza’ shop.” The major lure for this father and son team was a coal burning oven that reaches temperatures of 800 to 900 degrees. Andre notes, “Very few are left. This was one. I know from my years of pizza making it is the best method; this gives a nice char to the crust and melts the fresh mozzarella evenly.”
Benny learned about the best pizza making method by watching and learning. He explains, “Consistency in our business is huge. I grew up with my Dad taking me to his various shops and showing me how to make great pizza. And when I left Lehman, we discussed buying our own restaurant. Totonno’s was in business for over a decade and known in the neighborhood. It took two weeks of work to renovate the inside and we were ready.”
Long days and hours are involved for the two residents of Westchester County. First in is Andre as Benny notes, “My dad comes in early to prepare the food for the day. I usually arrive about 3 pm and stay until our 11 pm closing.” Andre starts his day making the fresh mozzarella and once the chef (Walter Donadio) arrives the preparations begin for the inventive interpretations of very traditional Italian dishes which are featured on the menu.
Though the menu items may be inventive they are created using the most traditional of ingredients sourced straight from Italy. Toscano’s selected San Marzano tomatoes which are handpicked in Naples because, as Nrecaj notes, “San Marzano tomatoes are the best tomato my family and I have ever worked with when making a basic sauce for pasta and Neapolitan pizza, they blend easy and have a rich thickness.”
At Toscano’s they insist on double 00 flour for its talcum-powder soft and high protein qualities. In Italy, where flour is classified either as 1, 0, or 00 to refer to how finely ground the flour is and how much of the bran and germ have been removed, doppio zero is the most highly refined. Nrecaj has chosen to support a family owned brand, Caputo, in keeping with the fact that his own business is a small family business. He comments, “Caputo is a family run operation, like mine, that makes sure every bag of flour that leaves their lot is of the best quality. Their flour only contains about 11% gluten which keeps the flour light. The result is a dough with enough elasticity to be shaped into our thin, Napoletana style pizza, but enough resistance to keep a beautifully risen crust.”
The pizzas, and refined dishes like Ossobuco veal shank over creamy mushroom risotto, that are placed in front of guests have been created by Chef Donadio who oversees the kitchen. While guests can go the traditional route and pair their meals with a broad selection of wines, there’s also a mouthwatering cocktail list that was designed by barman James Moreland to whet the appetite and partner with the menu.
The well thought through cocktail list was a major addition to the concept as Nrecaj comments, “We had no real bar. I developed a great food menu, which had some items that are conducive to drinking a cocktail – rather than a glass of wine. We all know that in Italy, food is always accompanied with great wine, and we do have some great wines, but we have also introduced some new starter plates that work great with a cocktail and who better then James Moreland to handle the transformation?”
Bar & Lifestyle expert, James Moreland was pleased with the collaboration. He says, “Toscano’s had the food, no question, and they were completely transparent to admit they did not have the cocktails and were as open as any restaurant as I have ever seen when it came to a professional beverage makeover. The transition to smart, easy and simple classic cocktails with a twist using what ingredients they had in the kitchen, led to a twist on the Old Fashioned becoming the house favorite with the Eastside Raspberry Mint with gin a close second ideally pairing with the fresh, homemade Italian fare.”
With a new restaurant stepping opening its doors in this family friendly, yet “name brand” saturated neighborhood, Toscano’s will definitely have to count on their skills, and unique authentic approach in order to survive. Then we’ll see; the ‘dominos’ may yet fall.