Mondays are chef Eric Lomando's day off. So when dine-in service was suspended at restaurants to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus — the decision handed down March 16 — Lomando was not working inside his Miller Place restaurant, Orto. Nevertheless, the gears were turning.
The chef still had food in his walk-in that could easily spoil. He had staff to pay, too. Though Orto usually opens on Tuesdays, Lomando remained closed as he plotted the pivot to takeout. "We tried to get an idea of what we could put together," he said simply.
By 11 o'clock that Tuesday night, Lomando had posted what might be the modern Magna Carta of takeout menus, one that balanced comfort and imagination: Fritto misto of clams, shrimp and calamari, with garlic aioli. Pork Milanese with melted taleggio served over Swiss chard and fingerling potatoes. Branzini a la plancha with white-bean purée. Paccheri pasta with wild-boar ragu. Family platters of chicken parmigiana, but also braised short ribs with broccoli rabe and mashed potatoes. Most of the dishes were new, and it was a feat of speed and ingenuity.
"We were trying to keep the food as similar to what we normally do, as possible, but think of things that would travel a little better," said Lomando, who long owned the now-closed St. James restaurant Kitchen A Bistro. He has kept on his kitchen team (they are seven, including the dishwasher). "I thought either way, if I can do enough to cover kitchen staff salaries, I'm just losing just fixed overhead," he said.
At Orto, which Lomando opened in 2012, the chef channels the deep seasonality of northern Italian cuisine with a heavy quotient of Long Island ingredients, served inside a historic 100-seat restaurant that feels like a farmhouse. There's braised cabbage in winter, local fava beans and asparagus in spring, heirloom tomatoes and local corn in summer for the restaurant's sweet-corn ravioli.
Over the last month, Lomando has had to tweak Orto's approach, sometimes in response to random supply-side issues — a dearth of particular eggs, for instance, or fresh ricotta from a valued producer. He's also dramatically reduced the dessert menu. "Stuff has been spotty, and we're changing menu items based on what's available. I can't imagine what these guys are dealing with," he said. Prices seem to reflect the various challenges: A two-course prix-fixe is $28, while apps start at $13 and entrees fall between $24 and $28.
The chef kept on full-time front-of-house staff to field orders, which began rolling in quickly. "By Thursday, we were starting to get busy, and we needed to adjust what were doing because were concerned about our health," he said. Customers who show up to Orto in person (orders are notched via phone or the restaurant's website) encounter a host desk cordoned off behind a wall of plastic wrap, as well as table of wine for sale. Staff will also carry meals outside to cars, or delivery is available via DoorDash.
While the volume of orders does not approach what the restaurant does on a regular day, Lomando said, he seems grateful. "I appreciate the support of the community. It's a constant learning process, and feels like you're opening a new restaurant," he said. "The first Saturday night doing takeout it felt like opening night."
Still, he seems to miss the pace and buzz of a full house. "It kind of takes the energy out of the restaurant," Lomando said.
Another challenge is timing an erratic stream of orders. "When we are busy [in the restaurant], it's a very different dynamic. We can say, 'all right, we'll seat 15 people every 15 minutes,' and regulate the flow," he said. "Now we're having no control over how people are ordering, the pacing of it."
Lomando is looking forward to incorporating spring crops into the menu, and also recently migrated Orto's wine list to local wines. "We're all in this together, and it seems better to support the guys down the road. That's one major change."
Despite the challenges, the kitchen is still pulling almost mythic specials out of their hat, such as the recent asparagus-and-ramp ravioli that this reporter took a 45-minute drive to procure. It was worth every minute of the commute.
Orto, 90 North Country Rd. Miller Place, 631-473-0014. restaurantorto.com