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Italian restaurants on Long Island: The road to inventing a local, regional style

It has been peopled by those who broke with tradition.

Italians treat vegetables with enormous respect and the

The strozzapreti seems innocent enough. The chunky noodles, a bit like stretched-out cavatelli, peek out from under shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano, oregano pesto clinging to their edges. Their name evokes sacrilege, though: Strozzapreti, literally translated, means “priest stranglers.” The Emilia-Romagna cooks who first rolled this pasta centuries ago could have had something profane in mind, but for chef Peter Van Der Mije of Osteria Leana in Oyster Bay, these noodles are simply vehicles for the season. Threaded with trumpet mushrooms and radicchio, and showered with pumpkin seeds, each bite conjures fall. “We look to tie the food in with the land,” said Van Der Mije.

An alum of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, Van Der Mije spent time in the kitchens of influential chefs such as Phil Howard, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Marcus Samuelsson and Dan Kluger. When he moved to Long Island with his family in 2011, he began looking for the ideal spot; eventually, he found it in downtown Oyster Bay, a tucked-away space in a historic brick building that had held the Oyster Bay Brewing Co., and, long before that, the town jail. After months of renovation, Osteria Leana—named for Van Der Mije’s Sicilian grandmother, who had always encouraged him to cook—opened in the spring of 2016.

A reimagined Italian spot in Oyster Bay, a town with deep Italian- American roots, was a gamble. Instead of white tablecloths, Osteria Leana had sleek furnishings, an open kitchen, subway tile. In place of eggplant Parmesan, there was pollock oreganata and polenta shaped into tots. Some residents—perhaps those who had eaten for years at more traditional places such as La Bussola, in neighboring Glen Cove—balked. “Italian food is relatable to a lot of people,” said Van Der Mije, but sometimes only within well- worn grooves, he conceded. “People can have an entrenched idea of what Italian food is.”

On an island where almost one in four people is of Italian descent, and where a meatball recipe constitutes everyday conversation, what authentic Italian food is, and what it is not, can be held as sacred. In contrast to the bubbling Parms of Italian-American food, however, regional food in Italy has always been a hyperlocal cuisine, morphing with the seasons. And the road to inventing a Long Island regional Italian style, if such a thing exists, has been a long and wending one, peopled by those who broke with tradition.

One of the first was Giulio Donatich, who, along with Cesare Dundara, founded Giulio Cesare in Westbury in 1972. On a recent Friday night, the tables are full, and Giulio, as absolutely everyone calls him, roams the dining room clad in chef’s checks and a white apron. From a distance, he may look his 83 years. Once he nears your table, though—and he will, because he checks on everyone eating at Giulio Cesare—his rosy cheeks suggest a bounding vitality.

At a corner table are two couples in their early 70s, clearly regulars. Giulio appears with a plate of enormous raw salmon fillets. He shows them to the table for inspection, then vanishes into the kitchen, only to return with two raw veal chops. These are presented and inspected as well.

It is one of these chops, smothered in blistered red peppers and a brown sauce, that emerges from the kitchen 20 minutes later, set down theatrically for the head of the table. “I talk to them,” Giulio said of his customers. “Sometimes they ask, ‘Why do you not give us the menu?’ I tell them what we have.”

When Giulio and Cesare opened their restaurant, the surrounding streets were dense with Italians. Many had immigrated to America from the then-destitute regions of southern Italy— Campania, Calabria and Sicily. With them, they brought the lustier dishes of the south—pizza, for instance—first to New York City pockets such as Bensonhurst and the Lower East Side and, later, to the suburbs, where they sought work and their own patches of green.

“My generation, we were raised in big cities, but everybody had a connection to the country, to a little town, where they could grow vegetables and make wine,” said chef and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich. She arrived in New York from Italy in 1958 at age 12. Those towns—Glen Cove, Westbury, Patchogue—grew vibrant communities in which Italians used suburban plots to cultivate (and crush) their own tomatoes for sauce and stomp grapes for wine.

Unlike many in Westbury, Giulio and Cesare had both come from the northern region of Istria soon after it became part of Yugoslavia after World War II. Bastianich was part of that same wave—she had lived in a refugee camp in Trieste with her family—and the food Istrians encountered in the United States was unfamiliar. “The Italian cuisine [here] was so different for me,” said Bastianich. “Italian-American cuisine was the cuisine of immigrants. They adapted the cuisine they remembered with the products they found.”

The tomatoes in America here were higher in acid, for instance, so they took longer to cook—hence, the all-day Sunday sauce. While fresh vegetables could be scarce, meat was plentiful, so Bolognese was loaded with it, and lasagna was laced with sausage. Cheese-slathered dishes such as eggplant Parmesan and baked ziti anchored this hybrid cuisine. Istrian food, on the other hand, was lighter and more restrained. It included risotto, grilled prawns, polenta, pasta with mushrooms—dishes Giulio had learned at the Istrian restaurant his family had run, Cita di Cherso.

When he arrived in New York City, also in 1958, he found work as a server at the luxe midtown restaurant Romeo Salta, which would shape Italian dining in the city for decades. As he rose to maître d’, he met Cesare, another Triestino.

The two became friends, and in the way of all budding restaurateurs, they began musing about their own place. In 1972, the pair followed the Italian exodus to Long Island, opening in a cozy space on Old Country Road in Westbury. Giulio cooked, Cesare greeted diners. “We wanted to be a little different,” Giulio said, from the red-sauce places that proliferated at the time, such as Borrelli’s in East Meadow and Stango’s in Glen Cove. They had lasagna, of course, but there was also osso buco, and grilled fish, and paglia e eno, green and white noodles served with peas and ham. Giulio folded the tiny envelopes called fusi, Istria’s signature pasta, into a bright tomato sauce with mushrooms.

“In the early days, it was not easy to survive,” Giulio said. Lidia Bastianich, who became friends with both Giulio and Cesare, had opened Buonavia, her own Forest Hills restaurant, in 1972, too; alongside an Italian-American head chef, Bastianich gradually began to integrate her own native dishes.

Word of mouth is a powerful force, and Giulio Cesare’s clientele slowly grew. In 1980, the restaurant moved to bigger digs half a block away, on Ellison Avenue. Athletes and entertainers dined here, including Joe Namath and Andrea Bocelli. Photos of these luminaries—including Giulio’s beloved New York Islanders, who play at nearby Nassau Coliseum—cover the walls of the restaurant’s foyer, woven in with vintage shots of the Romeo Salta crew and a few of a baby-faced Giulio in his family’s Istrian restaurant, strings of sausages hanging behind him.

The cultural makeup of Westbury has shifted, with Italian delis and pizzerias giving way to Latin American food. Giulio Cesare’s slightly out-of-time dining room still draws a steady crowd, though—for the fusi, for the stuffed artichokes and baked clams, for the lasagna and red snapper Livornese. An ailing Cesare no longer comes in, but his son Danny Dundara has taken his place. Giulio supervises the cooks, he does his rounds in the dining room—and on Sundays, he takes his wife out to dinner. Often, that is at Franina in Syosset.

Franina’s Franco Zitoli cuts a sharp gure. The 70-something former chef is always in a sports jacket, a silk scarf tucked into the breast pocket. If you’ve eaten his finely tuned food, it’s a telling detail. What isn’t obvious, though, is that the food at Franina is as quietly rebellious as Giulo’s was, back in the day.

The same eventful year that saw Lidia Bastianich and Giulio atich opening their first restaurants, Zitoli and his wife, Nina, opened a Uniondale cafe called Lamp of Italy. Zitoli had arrived in Brooklyn four years earlier from Puglia. “When I first came from Italy, I saw what was Italian food and laughed,” said Franco. “Most people, with the exception of a few high-end places, were cooking Italian [American] dishes. Not many ventured into regional Italian cooking. We said, can you imagine if we showed them the Italian food that we’re accustomed to?”

Food was in Zitoli’s blood. His father had exported olive oil and produce; his mother’s family was in the meat industry. Though Lamp of Italy closed in 1976, four years later, the couple, now with a young family, took over a former Greek restaurant on Jericho Turnpike in Syosset, calling it Franina, a mashup of their first names.

Franina had about 10 tables. Zitoli was the chef, with assists from his wife and mother. “We didn’t buy meat as cutlets or chops,” he said. “We bought sides from the market, and made our own chopped meat, our own sausage, veal chops. We bought fish whole.” He scoured Island and city for ingredients good enough to pass his steely-eyed muster. In the kitchen, Zitoli used a behemoth of a pasta machine, along with his hands, to turn out noodles from Italian flour.

Franina’s menu drew from across Italy: There was calf’s liver served Venetian style, there was risotto. From Puglia, he served roasted baby lamb chops and the classic Puglian pasta, orecchiette alla Barese with broccoli rabe—though absent traditional horsemeat sausage.

Wild boar, venison, quail, pheasant and rabbit all made appearances in dishes that seemed sublime in ways you couldn’t always put your finger on. “People would tell other people, and before we knew it, we have a receptionist giving guests directions from all different parts of the Island, Queens, the city,” Zitoli said.

He and his wife spent all of their time at the restaurant along with their children, including son Victor, who was plopped in a playpen in the kitchen as his father worked. “It got into his blood, this cooking and the smell of good food,” Zitoli said.

Victor chose the industry path, graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1996 and externing at San Domenico, one of Manhattan’s most upscale Italian restaurants. Soon after he returned to Franina in 1997, Franco ceded his head spot to his son and began building Franina’s now-robust catering arm.

Victor Zitoli is a focused and soft-spoken presence with a deeply instinctive sense of Franina’s kitchen, including the now-vintage pasta maker. He steers conversation away from himself and toward Franina’s dishes: A lasagna, for instance, with béchamel and mushrooms. From the greenhouse out back, Victor harvests figs, herbs, tomatoes and fennel, which he uses for a monthly porchetta special.

At Franina in Syosset, desserts are bright and
Fresh clams in linguine vongole, an Italian classic,
Lamb chops with lentils and polenta at Franina

Left: At Franina in Syosset, desserts are bright and beautiful. Top: Fresh clams in linguine vongole at Franina in Syosset. Bottom: Lamb chops with lentils and polenta at Franina in Syosset. Photo credit: Doug Young

Specials, in fact, should never be passed over at Franina. Both father and son use hard-built connections (and Franco’s constant travels) to find local produce and seafood. That might include velvety seppia, or cuttlefish, served in a vinaigrette—or puntarelle chicory and mottled Castelfranco radicchio in the fall, brassicas and fennel in the winter and fava beans and peas come spring.

It was not always so. In the 1960s and ’70s, securing a steady supply of quality extra-virgin olive oil or red-wine vinegar was dogged work for Italian chefs working in America. Bastianich recalled how risotto, for instance, “was very difficult.” Instead of Arborio rice, which turns creamy as it slowly absorbs liquid, she made do with American long-grain rice, which has less starch. Prosciutto di Parma, an Italian staple that today’s diners may take for granted, was banned in the United States from 1969 until 1989.

Fast-forward 30 years, and the abundance of stellar ingredients available to Victor Zitoli and Peter Van Der Mije stands in stark relief, putting the accomplishments of pioneers such as Giulio Donatich and Lidia Bastianich into context. They laid the floor, so to speak, for places such as Osteria Leana, where Italian dishes are reworked and folded into new forms.

In the hands of Van Der Mije, for example, the egg-drop soup called stracciatella—here, laced with rice for added starch—is dehydrated until it forms gossamer crisps. Braised lamb is spooned over tomato-laced tabbouleh, and capellini is topped with aps of briny sea urchin. Those flights of fancy are worlds away from Giulio’s stately stuffed artichokes, say, or a precisely arranged plate of lamb chops at Franina. But all are part of a continuum founded on taking high-quality seasonal ingredients and coaxing out their essence. That could be clams from Long Island Sound, or greens from a Brookville farm, or tomatoes grown on the North Fork—or even the silky “tipo 00” our used for something as traditional as gnocchi.

A few hours before dinner service on a recent night, Osteria Leana prep cook Marisol Zaldvar gently shapes the little knots on a back counter, placing them one by one on a nearby tray. Tonight, they’ll be served in an opulent carbonara sauce, just as they might be in Rome. 

Restaurant information

FRANINA: 58 Jericho Tpke., Syosset; 516-496-9770, franina.com

GIULIO CESARE RISTORANTE: 18 Ellison Ave., Westbury; 516-334-2982

OSTERIA LEANA: 76 South St., Oyster Bay; 516-584-6995, osterialeana.com

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