THE FUTURE OF ITALIAN FOOD IN NYC
By Sophia Smith, Marketing and Communications Coordinator for the International Culinary Center
Google ‘Don Angie’ and you’ll find headlines like “Red-Sauce Italian Cooking Finds a Future at Don Angie” (Wells, The New York Times, 2018) and “Don Angie Is the Next Evolution of Italian-American Cuisine” (Sutton, Eater, 2018). Rave reviews about the revolutionary Italian restaurant splatter the result pages. Critics, foodies, out-of-town friends, and the ever-hard-to-impress Italian grandparents can’t seem to get enough—and neither can I.
As a self-proclaimed foodie, I tend to receive a few, albeit almost-frantic, questions a month from friends and family asking where they should dine in NYC. So, I was more than excited when I received an invitation to eat at the ever-popular Don Angie for the first time. Located on a busy corner in the West Village of NYC, it’s the perfect place to satisfy your Italian cravings; if you can snag a reservation (they typically have thousands of reservation requests a night!).
I could go on (and on) about the flavors of Italy, injected with global influence that we devoured—but you can read the more eloquently-written reviews from my aforementioned food industry colleagues for that. What you may not be able to find is a look into one-half of the culinary innovators behind Don Angie’s success—Executive Chef/Co-Owner, Scott Tacinelli.
FOLLOWING HIS PASSION
It’s a gloomy day in late-May when I meet Tacinelli for my first 2019 Outstanding Alumni interview, a few days before my Italian adventure there. As I approach the restaurant, I see Tacinelli inside pulling chairs down from tables and laying out table settings through the propped open door. The space feels welcoming—with just 52 seats, black and white marble checkered floors, warm lighting across the focal point bar, and retro arches and lighting fixtures, it feels familiar as it calls back to old Italian red-sauce joints.
As we sit down for our interview, Tacinelli recounts how he began in the food industry. After a successful eight years as an advertising sales rep for CBS radio, Tacinelli woke up one day (having just turned 30) and decided he needed to follow his passion—cooking. Before jumping into the industry, however, he decided to enroll in the International Culinary Center’s Professional Culinary Arts program in 2008. “I called my mother and told her that I was going to quit my job and enroll in culinary school full-time. She said ‘I think that’s the best thing that you could ever do.’”
Following graduation, Tacinelli consulted with ICC’s Career Services team and was recommended to trail at Park Avenue. “Career Services had said that the Chef there, Craig Koketsu, was a really great teaching chef. The restaurant had just opened a few months prior and had this cool concept that the restaurant would change every few months into a different season, so I knew that I was going to be able to experience a lot.”
Tacinelli worked his way up in the restaurant, setting goals for himself along the way. After a year, he was promoted to sous chef within the restaurant, despite having doubts about if this was the right career for him. “I remember thinking, maybe this isn’t the right career for me. I love cooking, but I’m not very good in the restaurant setting. As I became more comfortable cooking, I knew it was the place for me.” Years later, he can’t imagine doing anything else.
A HUGE CHALLENGE
After a successful three years at Park Avenue, and meeting his future business partner and wife Angie Rito along the way, he was asked to join the team at Quality Meats as the co-chef de cuisine. He knew it was the right step to take on his path. During his time there, he worked with Chef Pascal Béric, ICC Chef Instructor of over two decades, to hone his charcuterie skills. Even though Chef Pascal was teaching at ICC during this time, he enjoyed working at restaurants to teach teams about charcuterie, what Professional Culinary Arts students still have the pleasure of learning from him in the program today.
Just as he was finding his footing, the restaurant group that owns Quality Meats—Quality Branded—decided to open an Italian steakhouse next door. They asked Tacinelli to become the Executive Chef, and he’ll be the first one to admit, “It was amazing, but very scary. It was a 220-seat restaurant and a huge challenge.” At Quality Meats, he was part of a team. In this new role at Quality Italian, he was suddenly thrown into completely new waters. “I hadn’t been the sole person running the kitchen yet. This was creating a whole new menu and a whole new genre that our company hadn’t done yet, which was Italian food. Luckily, it ended up being very successful.”
Through the process, he learned a lot about himself. From managing staff and expectations, to coaching and training people, everything was a growing experience. This was also his first New York Times review, and while it “wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for” (they received 2/4 stars, which is considered “very good”) he still learned about receiving criticism on a national level, a vital lesson for a chef to learn. Looking back now, he says that the experience was amazing and changed his perspective.
FINALLY, A PLACE OF THEIR OWN
Following their successful speakeasy venture—dinnertable—which he ran with his wife, Chef Angie Rito, they finally opened a place of their own that everyone had been waiting for—Don Angie. This is where the husband and wife team have really hit their stride. Tacinelli is an unmistakably talented chef, but as we take a break during our interview, Tacinelli’s business-mind shines through. As he discusses the Meyer hand soap for the bathroom with the restaurant’s manager, it’s clear that his attention to detail and thoughtfulness in every aspect is a large part of what makes Don Angie special.
Before I met Tacinelli, I didn’t expect to learn about the business-aspects of running a restaurant. I imagined we’d talk in-depth about what inspires him in the kitchen. I quickly learned that this wouldn’t be all that we’d discuss. Halfway through our interview, he admits that they still have days where “they aren’t as busy” and thoughts race through his mind like, are we losing popularity, or, how do we allow ourselves vacation days? Ironically, as he utters his typical, business-owner fears, the phone rings off the hook for what seems like the 20th time during our interview, most likely a diner scrambling to secure a much sought after reservation. Rest assured, Don Angie’s popularity isn’t diminishing—on any given night, there are upwards of 2,500 hopefuls on the wait-list for a table at the much sought-after restaurant.
Though the restaurant’s central West Village location allows for an abundance of foot traffic, what it doesn’t offer is an abundance of space. When he was designing the menu with Rito, his culinary training helped him to think outside of the box and utilize the space-constricting kitchen to his advantage. “We had to figure out ways to make things that people were going to like, using different techniques, so those skills that I learned are really important.”
THE FUTURE OF DON ANGIE
It’ll be two years in October since Don Angie opened to the public. Six months in from the restaurant opening, Tacinelli and Rito decided to go on a vacation to Italy for the first time. When they landed, their phones were inundated with emails saying that the restaurant had flooded. Learning not to freak out, he says, is the biggest skill that he’s gained through running a restaurant. Think through any issues that you have and push through the problems. Throughout the ups-and-downs of running a restaurant, Tacinelli and Rito have pushed through the competitive food-industry to outshine their competition. From their James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef: New York City, to being named on The New York Times, Eater and Time Out’s lists of “Best Dishes of 2018” and Esquire’s “Best New Restaurant in America 2018,” the culinary power duo show no signs of slowing down.
Looking towards the future, Don Angie diners can get excited for a Scott Tacinelli and Angie Rito cookbook coming out soon. As for any advice he wants to give to those looking to change their careers like he did? “Talk to people, friends in the industry, and take classes to see if you love to work in the restaurant setting. If you feel like it’s the right place for you, then go for it.”