Sergio Ragosta has dark hair and dark eyes – framed by large, black spectacles – that occasionally twinkle. Forty-two-year-old Ragosta is from Naples, in Southern Italy. He’s a chef with knowledge, skill and fiery passion; attributes that have led more than a few perceptive observers to remark, “He’s the real deal.” In other words, Ragosta, is a bonafide, 100 percent original Italian chef.
Like many who dwell in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere, I’ve taken to spending most of my vacation time in a reliably warm place, Palm Beach, Fla. It’s become my home away from home. The Ambassador Hotel, a 70-year-old beach resort, is where I live, for at least one month a year. It’s where I met Sergio Ragosta, at the opening of his new restaurant called, Sergio’s at the Ambassador.
He’s lived mainly in the U.S. since he moved from Napoli to Connecticut at age 11, but, for Ragosta, Naples and Italy are never far. Even today he appears to be more comfortable speaking Italian than English. He still has relatives in Italy and his sister is a nurse there. At 20, he returned to Naples and worked 70 to 80 hours a week in restaurants, earning $800 a month. Like his father before him, it’s how he learned to be a chef.
He has vivid memories of playing soccer, as a child, on the brick sidewalks of ancient Naples, and then going home to cook with his mother.
“My passion started when I was a kid. You know, even when I was eight, nine years old I used to make small pastina with broth, just with my mom.”
One morning, as the sun was warming the beach outside, I sat with Ragosta in his restaurant. He served me, fresh from the oven, sfogliatelle, a seashell like puff pastry with a creamy centre of dry fruit, oranges and lemon zest. Giovanni, his restaurant manager — for whom Ragosta once worked in Italy —made espresso.
We were both thinking of Italy, he for sentimental reasons – after all, it’s where he met his life partner, wife Luisa Carandente Ragosta. I, on the other hand, was thinking how great it was that the Ambassador Hotel’s large dining room was about to become a true Italian restaurant, not an imitation Italian restaurant, like Canada’s East Side Mario’s, or the US Olive Garden chain.
Look and learn
In Italy, Ragosta cooked in Naples, Rome, Florence and Milan. He acquired his various culinary skills by watching chefs as they worked.
“Most of them never wanted to train you, especially in Italy, because they’re really jealous of their skills. So, I acquired by myself. I watched and then put it together in my mind.”
In 2005, the same year their daughter Roberta was born — daughter Hilary arrived two years later — Sergio and Luisa Ragosta opened their first restaurant in America, Amore Ristorante. A dream come true. He was 25. After several years of living and working in Italy, where he opened his own Naples restaurant at age 22, Connecticut called. It’s where Amore is situated, in a town called Sherman.
The Palm Beach venture allows him to cook at top speed year-round. Amore does brisk business from May to December, while the Palm Beaches and the Ambassador Hotel are going concerns in winter. Although Palm Beach has other Italian restaurants, he’s confidant that the quality of his cuisine will be enough to make Sergio’s at the Ambassador a success.
What’s the difference?
I wondered how he saw the difference between an Italian ristorante like Sergio’s at the Ambassador, and Olive Garden. He was shaking his head before I’d finished asking.
“Olive Garden is not a classic Italian restaurant. The difference is … let’s say the chicken parm, the veal parm. In Italy you don’t find them. They’re not Italian dishes. They’re Americanized Italian dishes. Maybe somebody from Italy came over and invented these three or four dishes that people know. I’m not saying they’re no good, but it’s not the real, traditional Italian food.”
Garlic is an important ingredient in many cultures. Perhaps a little more important, I thought, in Italy. Chef Ragosta believes restaurants like Olive Garden and Old Spaghetti Factory are responsible for perpetuating a false notion about the role garlic plays in Italian cooking.
“In Italy you would never find garlic bread. You can’t eat garlic and then kiss your girlfriend or your wife. Garlic is used in Italy but not like it’s used in the US. In the US, garlic is the key factor. They overuse it. For me, garlic is just one ingredient. If you overuse the garlic you’re gonna lose the tomatoes and the basil. That’s why a recipe is made in stages, and you should taste all stages of the dish: the clams, the tomatoes, the pasta, the parsley.”
To demonstrate, he invited me into the restaurant’s kitchen, where he made zuppa di pesce, a seafood soup, but, in this case, with pasta added. He began by gently sautéing a small amount of fresh garlic in extra virgin olive oil. After the garlic had mellowed, he added PEI mussels, Florida baby clams, Massachusetts calamari and jumbo shrimp. Next came a splash of white Italian wine, a pinch of salt and grinding of black pepper. Following this he added a quarter cup of pasta water and half a cup of fresh Italian plum tomato sauce. Then the pan was partially covered while the seafood cooked for exactly seven minutes.
Chef Ragosta makes his own pasta from scratch. He quickly cooked a portion of fresh tagliolini. (Never precook pasta, he warned.) Once the seafood was finished, he removed it from the pan, leaving only the sauce. He added the pasta to the sauce and stirred with a long fork until all the tagliolini was well coated with the liquid. Finally, the pasta was plated, and the seafood arranged on top of it. He was right; without garlic domination, I tasted fully the unique flavours of every ingredient.
Naples is where pizza was invented. Feasting in a Naples pizzeria, as a child, is one of Sergio Ragosta’s favourite memories – along with eating his mom’s eggplant parmigiana and her ragù of plum tomatoes with short rib meat. I first tasted pizza in New York, when I was 10 years old. It was very, very cheesy – a classic trait of New York style pizza. Naples born Ragosta features a handful of pizzas on his Sergio’s at the Ambassador menu. He offered a description of authentic Neapolitan pizza.
“The Naples pizza is based on four ingredients: the Italian plum tomato, the fresh mozzarella, the basil and extra virgin olive oil. So, in the Italian plum tomato there is no adding. There is only salt. That’s why you can taste the flavours. The Italian plum tomato is just drained. There’s no additions, meaning garlic, oregano and … you know, some people in the US they put onions, an unbelievable amount of things. It’s not the way it should be.”
Naples and the Campania region are well represented on the Sergio’s at the Ambassador menu. Ragosta told me that Southern Italy, “is more based on seafood and a lot of vegetables.” No surprise then to see grilled calamari, eggplant parmigiana, grilled octopus with cannellini beans, grilled branzino (sea bass,) salmone (salmon,) jumbo shrimp Francese, gnocchi zucchini and vongole (clams,) risotto pescatore (seafood) and, of course, zuppa di pesce.
Northern Italy is not forgotten — where, as Chef Ragosta says, “they follow more the meats, the mushrooms, the creams and the cheeses” — beginning with comforting polpette della nonna (Italian meatballs,) pappardelle con polpette, followed by tagliolini in cream sauce, fettuccine Bolognese (pasta with slow cooked beef,) chicken Milanese and veal Milanese.
People who dine at Sergio’s at the Ambassador are first served a basket of Italian bread, accompanied by olives in oil. Although he serves extra virgin olive oil and olives with the bread, Sergio Ragosta told me that “in Italy they only use bread. No butter or anything.” He added that combining balsamic vinegar with olive oil, as a bread dip, is more “an international habit.”
Chefs like Ragosta don’t cut corners. He made the tagliolini for the zuppa, and every morning he makes bread for the tables. I used mine to pick up the sauce in the zuppa, something Italians love to do. They even have a word for it. It’s called scarpetta, which means “little shoe.”
Pasta, bread and wine are equally important, no matter where you live in Italy. Sergio Ragosta says he grew up on pasta.
“It’s an everyday meal,” he explained. We switch with other things. It could be a base Pomodoro sauce. We do pasta e fagioli (often pronounced “fazool”). It’s a lunch; it’s not really a soup for the Italian culture. We put together pasta with vegetables too. We do pasta with cauliflower. In the average Italian family, you grow up on pasta, especially for lunch. Maybe for dinner you go with the different fish, meat or chicken.”
Almost every table in Sergio’s at the Ambassador is round, a circle, the universal symbol of unity. Sergio Ragosta’s philosophy makes this eminently appropriate. He believes his customers should be treated like family.
“I don’t think of a table as a number; for me it’s a friend or a family member. Everything that comes out of the kitchen, we’ll try to make it the best way I can do. It’s very important that people feel like they’re at home. The customer is paying but they need to be comfortable; and the service, the food, wine and the music need to create the right atmosphere. It’s not just serving the dish.”
Before heading back north, I dined at Sergio’s at the Ambassador several times. On each visit I couldn’t help but imagine I was in Italy. The service was gracious — an old-fashioned adjective, but appropriate. Giovanni, the smartly dressed manager, greeted every customer with a smile. His warm manner, pleasant voice, and accent, which is even stronger than Chef Ragosta’s, were charming. Perfectly pitched Italian music improved the almost Mediterranean atmosphere.
A favourite appetizer was the grilled calamari. Each squid hood was arranged with tentacles, slightly charred at the edges, at its end — for a more natural look. The flesh was beautifully tender and tweaked just enough by a zesty, lemon vinaigrette. Complementing the calamari was a salad of arugula and deep red tomato.
Two entrées or secondi, apart from the zuppa di pesce, were memorable. Chef Ragosta’s slow cooked pork shank was sublimely good. No more than a gentle nudge was required to make the meat slide, like an avalanche, from the bone. The meat shimmered from a pour of the flavourful sauce in which the pork was no doubt braised. Tender roasted potato and a rainbow of vegetables, not to mention a glass of Valpolicella, made the dish even more exceptional.
Branzino is another name for sea bass. It’s also known as loup de mer. Sergio Ragosta had cooked it until just golden and accented it with a zippy mixture composed of lemon, caper berries, tomato and balsamic reduction. The mild, buttery flakes of branzino were so exquisite they nearly evaporated in my mouth.
Dolce, or dessert, proved that Chef Ragosta is masterful in both savoury and pastry departments.
His sfogliatelle was heavenly. Another standout was his lemon cake with limoncello. The light, yellow cake was layered with buttery, lemon scented icing and topped with blueberries. Dots of raspberry coulis made a circle around the piece of cake, and a sliced strawberry leaned against it for good measure. It was the lightest, and at the same time, the most refreshing piece of cake I’ve ever eaten.
In my career as a food writer, I’ve met other passionate chefs. Sergio Ragosta is passionate, but his special gift is that he can make you as excited about food as he is. As he talked, and I listened, I thought, this guy would make a great teacher. But then I realized he already is. He was teaching me, and, no doubt many others with whom he comes into contact. I’m told that he’s so generous in sharing his skills that he’s had dishwashers in his kitchens graduate to line cooks, sous chefs and even executive chefs. He believes his talent and skills are a gift from God that must be shared.
Sergio Ragosta is an original. He’s the real deal.
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. Contact him through his website: www.karlwells.com
Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells