“I never use recipes, and you won’t find any cookbooks there!” says Sal Apicella with a sweeping arm gesture, indicating the bookshelves in the family’s spacious Midtown penthouse in New York.
Apicella and his wife Judy are both steeped in the food business as long-time restaurateurs. They have just opened a new trattoria, the Tramonti, on 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues on New York’s famed Restaurant Row. The pizzeria and restaurante is located in the heart of the theatre district, where restaurants and bars keep theatergoers fed and watered. The Apicellas know their Italian cooking inside out, and for them, as for most Italians, food is cozy and equals love. Judy, who now works as a documentary filmmaker, is the former owner of an American restaurant, an Italian bistro and a coffee bar.
“But my favorite food is Italian!” she says. “Pasta, ravioli… mmm. Pasta is also something that our son Nico loves, because it’s great finger food.”
When the couple ventures out to eat, they almost always choose Italian and usually head to Amarone, a neighborhood restaurant owned by Sal’s father, Giovanni Apicella.
“It’s close by, we love the food and Nico can run around there,” Judy says.
That the restaurant business is in Sal Apicella’s blood is almost an understatement. Not only has his father had around 34 restaurants between Italy and the U.S., Sal was born on Italy’s food-conscious Amalfi Coast in Tramonti – the unofficial birthplace of the pizza – to a mama who cooked “divine food,” according to the creative chef.
When we ask where he gets his inspiration from, the answer comes very quickly.
“From Italy, from my mother, she taught me everything.”
“Over 4,500 restaurant owners in the world stem from the small village of Tramonti,” Sal explains. “But I first became an interior designer. My first summer job was as a decorator. I liked it so much that when September came and it was time to go back to school, I quit. Then I studied privately and became an interior designer.”
The step from design to food is not such a big one, however, and when Sal left Italy to come to New York seven years ago, he got a push in the right direction from his father.
“My father had established himself here and yes, he pushed me a bit. But to me, food is art and design all in one. It’s flavor, color – everything. And I am happy when I cook. I open the fridge, see what’s in there and use it. For me making dinner for my family means taking care of my family.”
“He’s a great cook,” Judy chimes in. “And he makes the best bread!”
“Judy’s a wonderful cook, too,” Sal continues. “I think it’s because we’re both passionate about it, even though we don’t think the same way. When Judy makes dinner I always like it, and since she’s a vegetarian she knows vegetarian and healthy cooking very well, which I don’t.”
Any vegetarian will tell you how tricky it can be to maneuver your way through a menu, figuring out what you can eat, or if it can somehow be rearranged. Tramonti offers delicious fare for vegetarians, too, and organic ingredients are mostly used.
With his background in design, Tramonti is very much Sal’s baby, created to fit his vision.
“I designed it from scratch and I think it’s going to be very cute. The space has no windows, so we have custom-made fake windows on the wall with open wood shades lit from behind to produce an illusion of natural light. It’ll have an old-fashioned feel, a bit elegant, but it’s not going to be scary at all. You will feel like you’re in a trattoria in Italy.”
In order to make it in the restaurant business in New York, Sal believes you must be passionate about food.
“I think the most important factor to make it here in New York is the location. You have to have a good location. We will be on Restaurant Row where competition is fierce, but there are also thousands of tourists walking down there every day. You also have to have a different vision; you cannot be like everybody else. Then obviously you have to serve good food, and you have to get good PR, too.”
The Apicellas will not, however, use a PR firm. They will rely on old-fashioned word of mouth, and the best pizzaiolo–pizza-maker–in the world, Sal’s cousin Filippo Pagano.
“My favorite food is pizza,” Sal says. “Pizza Napolitana – nothing’s better.”
Lingonberries with an Italian twist? Who would have thought it actually worked.
Sal Apicella says he once tried lingonberry with pie, but it doesn’t seem to have made a lasting impression, so to confuse the situation a bit, Nordic Reach gave him and Judy a jar of lingonberry preserves to work with.
“My first thought was that I didn’t think it’s going to fit into what we’re doing’,” Sal says about the sweet berries. “Quite honestly, at first, as an Italian I found the thought of combining the lingonberry preserves with Italian cooking revolting. Then, I thought, it’s interesting, let’s give it a try.”
The result? A full menu of a beautiful ruby cocktail, prosciutto pinwheels, lasagna, and grilled lamb!
“Lingon is sweet and sour, I now see it working well with salty and crunchy food,” says chef Apicella after the experience, and adds; “also, the lingonberries are high in antioxidants and this is appropriate for the restaurant in that it will feature organic food and will have a focus on the health conscious. We also felt that Swedish cuisine is hearty and formidable, as are the Swedish people, in Italian we say ‘Forza’ and the combination of the berry with the lamb and the lasagna works beautifully.”
For a selection of the other Apicella restaurants,
Written by Eva Stenskär
Photographed by Henrik Olund