It’s taken a few years of experience, but Chef Tony Saporito turns a flashy shrimp flambĂ© into a dead simple savoury work.
He heats oil in a pan, tosses in jumbo shrimp and fries them. At the exact moment of cooked perfection he slathers on Sambuca.
Poosh! The pan flames, and presto, there’s a dish of succulent prawns with a hint of sweetness begging to jump into your mouth.
What a flashy way to impress guests in just five minutes prep time.
Saporito is the owner and executive chef of Nello’s Cucina Italiana, a culinary landmark on St. Albert Trail’s north end, named after his father.
In March, Saporito and his wife Danielle celebrated their seventh year feeding gastronomical delights to a continuing stream of loyal patrons.
The father of three girls believes the key to his success is one simple golden rule. “Treat people the way you want to be treated, food-wise, experience-wise and service-wise,” says Saporito, a big smile splitting his cheeks.
He is a true Italian-Canadian chef, a mercurial talent with quick, never ending bursts of energy. He demands top-notch work from his team all the while placing yet higher expectations upon himself.
While some cooks become wild-eyed and stressed in a restaurant kitchen’s pressure cooker atmosphere, he uses his intense energy to unlock the emotion, the feeling in food. For him, cooking is somewhat a spiritual exercise.
“You gotta cook with love, and if you’re upset it comes out. You gotta be passionate every day. It doesn’t matter what you cook. Just cook with love.”
Just tipping 40, Saporito has worked in professional restaurant kitchens since he was 13 and has enough experience to fill a portfolio for several people.
His parents, immigrants from the southern Italian region of Calabria, operated La Pasta at the University of Alberta’s Hub Mall in the late ’80s.
“We lived in the north end in Clareview. When I was 13-and-a-half, I’d ride the LRT to the restaurant every day and make fresh pasta using 24-and-a-half eggs and a five-gallon pail of flour. That was my dad’s recipe.”
By the early ’90s, his father had opened Il Pasticcio, one of Edmonton’s busiest Italian restaurants that catered to professionals.
“It was so popular, when we opened the door I was always scared. It was chaos. Students from the university who now became lawyers, doctors, engineers, accountants – they all followed my father.”
As a young adult, Saporito stayed clear of the kitchen, choosing to work front of house raking in big tips.
“I worked as a waiter, bus boy, server. It was all about the money.”
Many of Il Pasticcio’s clients lived in St. Albert. To oblige them, Saporito’s father opened Nello’s Cucina Italiana in 2002.
At Nello’s, Saporito returned to the kitchen transforming traditional dishes to more avant-garde slow food art.
Unfortunately, his stint was short-lived. Married with a baby on the way and mortgage to pay, he shifted to oilfield construction.
“You make great money, but my long term goal was to get a restaurant.”
When old Nello decided to sell the restaurant in 2010, father and son negotiated a deal. While Saporito retained the name, he transformed the menu and ambiance.
The old Nello’s Cucina Italiana was decorated in purple and yellow walls and patterned with messy designer graffiti.
“It took five coats of paint and two coats of Kilz to get it off.”
The walls were transformed to a Belgian brown (coffee-milk colour) and adorned with a blend of elegant paintings and nature-like decorations.
A blonde wood bar with rows of sparkling glass bottles is the focal point even as stylish tables are set with contrasting black table cloths and white napkins.
“I want people to feel comfortable and cosy. It makes them want to stay longer. I want it to feel like a house.”
And it does.
“I don’t want to push people out the door for the next setting. I’m not greedy. To me owning a restaurant means the more you build relationships, the more people become a friend. Then they are no longer a customer.”
But he does have a very strict front-of-house golden rule – no hats worn at the table. He has even asked men who refuse to remove their caps to leave.
“It starts conversation at the table. And I like to keep it a bit old school. I don’t want to see old school gone so quickly.”
For Saporito, the no-hat-at-the-table rule signifies courtesy and respect.
“That’s the foundation of Canada. It’s these little things that make a big difference. I’ve had parents thank me for that. They were able to sit with their kids for 20 minutes and have a conversation on why the can’t wear a hat instead of looking at the cellphone.”
Saporito’s simplified Italian menu relies on subtle seasonings, natural flavours whether it’s a salad, pasta or the more specialized osso bucco, rabbit or quail dishes.
Building additional value on the restaurant’s established reputation, Danielle, Saporito’s wife, sells Nello’s tomato sauce at the St. Albert Farmers’ Market.
Last year she experimented with the concept, unsure of whether it would fly.
“I canned jars of stuff. Tony wasn’t too sure about it, but on the first day he came with me and helped me set up and then left. At noon, I phoned him, “Tony, we’re sold out. What are we going to do?”
The answer is in the tomato sauce. They are setting up a table for a second year at the St. Albert market, and once the Italian Bakery Mercato opens, Nello’s sauce will line the specialty store’s shelves.
At the interview’s close, Saporito took a few minutes to ponder life in the kitchen.
“I’ve made it my own. I took a recipe and perfected it. It was the same product. I just did it differently.”