Written by Pete Sheehan, email@example.com Friday, 10 May 2013 00:00
Customers at Phil Morizio’s restaurant, Café Al Dente, taste the flavors that evoke his family’s kitchen in the Bronx, as well some of the finest kitchens in Manhattan.
“It’s the food I grew up with. I learned to cook from watching my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother,” said Morizio, who has operated Café Al Dente, an Italian-American restaurant on the corner of Spring and East Main, Oyster Bay, for 20 years.
“When I make the bolognese meat sauce in my kitchen it smells like my house on Sunday mornings when I was growing up,” Morizio said. “My chicken pastina is my grandmother’s recipe. It is one of my biggest sellers.”
Still, the restaurant business was not his original plan. Though he worked his way through high school and college at delis and restaurants, he majored in computers at Queens College. After graduating in 1981 he went to work for IBM.
“I hated it,” Morizio said, so he took a job cooking at the Algonquin Hotel. “We had a lot of celebrities,” but he was most impressed when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was in with her son, John F. Kennedy Jr.
“I had to look out from the window in the kitchen,” Morizio said. She noticed him and waved. He waved back. “She asked for me to come to the table, thanked me for the meal, and introduced me to her son. Of course, I already knew who he was.”
Later he cooked for other hotels and also at Lutece, the legendary Manhattan French restaurant. “I learned so much from the chef-owner,” Andre Soltner. “He gave me some very good advice. He told me to make every customer feel special.”
His first job out of Manhattan was Old Gerlich’s in Glen Head.
Morizio started his own restaurant in 1987, the first Café Al Dente, in Sea Cliff.
“We received good notices from the The Times and Newsday.”
For three years, he operated the Café Pizzazz in Rego Park, but decided to return to Long Island in 1993.
“I looked at 50 different locations but I came to Oyster Bay” where he saw an existing restaurant for sale. “I walked around the town. I fell in love with Oyster Bay. I sat down and wrote a check.
“I have been for happy to be here. I love the customers. I get talking to them and sometimes I almost forget that they have to pay,” he noted with a laugh.
“I use fresh food – wild-caught seafood such as salmon and shrimp. I use organic produce — spinach and mushrooms. I try to use local produce. I use a local clamer and a local seafood market.”
Though he takes pride in his family recipes, “I like to be creative, too. Every night after we close I go on the computer for two hours looking for different recipes.”
Though an Italian-American restaurant, “we like to try different specials — Asian dishes, French entrees,” Morizio said. “In fact, my most popular special was shepherd’s pie,” an Irish dish, he added with a chuckle.
His most popular dish is Rigatoni Fiorentina, with chicken, pasta, fresh mozzarella cheese and organic spinach.
“I have the same menu I started with but I have eight to 10 new special a week,” Morizio said.
Though he looks forward to Mother’s Day, “I don’t have a special menu for holidays. I don’t price gouge. People want the foods they know when they come.”
He says that he tries to keep the prices affordable. “For example, I have a catering menu and I have kept the prices the same. I have a $40 family dinner combo that feeds a family of six. I sell 10 to 30 of those a day.”
Morizio says that his restaurant has done well in Oyster Bay. “In recent years profits have been down with the recession but I have 14 employees with 12 children and I have been able to keep everybody working. My profits will come back when the economy improves.
“I plan to stay in Oyster Bay until I retire,” Morizio said. “I don’t want to go anywhere else.”