…Wow… well I guess I would make food available to all people by asking everyone to eat less food. Moving from Italy I was always impressed by the huge portions that were served in the USA and being in the business by the huge amount of waste that you see in many establishments. If we all ate less, then everyone could probably eat. Too often people describe a restaurant by the size of the portions they serve. I have always focused on the quality of food more than the quantity. People have to understand that too much food is not healthy. “Eat less so we can all eat” sounds like a great slogan for a great campaign.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Rosario Procino who moved from Naples, Italy,to New York in 1999 with a Master’s Degree in Computer Science Engineering. As a true pioneer he opened Kesté Pizza, a historic moment for the New York pizza scene as it brought the very first Neapolitan pizza restaurant to the United States. Selling Kesté Pizza at the peak of its success in 2012, Rosario joined forces with acclaimed Chef Pasquale Cozzolino and opened Ribalta in Union Square, a true Embassy for Napoli in New York City.
Thank you so much for doing this interview! What inspired you to become a chef (or restaurateur)?
Passion for food and the need to have my own food here in New York City. Food has always been an essential component of my life, pizza in particular. As a young student studying Engineering, I paid my tuition by working in local restaurants in Napoli, starting as dishwasher. After moving to New York in 1999, I was missing my home food terribly, both my pizza and my traditions. In 2008, after several years of research and study, I decided to change my career and move from running sales for the largest pasta company in the world to opening my first restaurant and introducing the real Neapolitan Pizza to New York City. The rest is history. When I decided to open Kesté people called me crazy saying Neapolitan pizza was soggy, under cooked and that Americans would never like it. Today however, New York City and every major city in the US have numerous Neapolitan or Neapolitan inspired pizzerias. It was love at first sight.
What has your journey been like since first setting foot in a kitchen?
Opening a restaurant is never easy. Opening your first restaurant is even more difficult. Opening your first restaurant with pretty much zero experience in the business seems impossible. For me, my first restaurant opening has been a dream-come-true from day one. With one goal in mind — bringing real Neapolitan Pizza to New York City — nothing could stop me.
I was spending 16–18 hours a day in the restaurant trying to get it started; I didn’t even realize I was working so many hours. I hired people with the right experience to balance my lack of experience and made sure they were just as motivated as I was to make this happen. I let them focus on the operations (as I watched and learned). I focused my attention on what I could do better: Public Relations. I wanted to be sure press knew about our opening and friends of our friends knew too. I looked at every possible way to make sure everyone in New York City knew we were opening.
When the opening day arrived we decided to do a “soft-opening” on a Sunday night. I will never forget the moment we opened the doors at 5 PM. There was a long line at the door waiting for us. We seated 420 people the first night in a 46-seat restaurant. My dream came true !!! Since then, my journey has gotten better and better. There has been rocky moments, and ups and downs, but the passion and the love for what I do helped me to get where I am today and still with the enthusiasm of a 20 year old. Every day is like that first day.
Do you have a specialty? If so, what drew you to that type of food?
All my restaurants reflect myself, my life, and my childhood. I try to promote the cuisine I grew up with, but most importantly the overall philosophy from my home town. Everything I do speaks about Napoli. It can be a pasta dish or a pizza, but it can also be the atmosphere, the music, the warm welcoming, the chatting with our clients and yes, the being very loud. This is what we are and this is what I like to bring to our clients. It’s not a meal, it’s an experience. I always say, walking into Ribalta is like going to Napoli without a passport and a nine hour flight.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef?
One night a regular customer came up to me and said with a very emotional tone: “I’m Italian and living in New York for 10 years. I want to thank you for bringing this pizza to New York, even though, I have to say that you took dreams and emotions away from me”. He was serious and I got a bit scared about what he was going to say next.
He continued: “Before you opened,I would dream for days about eating pizza back at home ahead of my trips to Italy. Every time it was so satisfying and emotional to arrive in Napoli and eat my first pizza as soon I would get out of the airport.
Now, that does not happen anymore. I can eat my pizza every day, right here in New York City.”
I found that to be so interesting. We do not realize how a simple meal can be so important for people. A meal is not only a way to nourish our body. A meal is an experience, a memory that can make you feel good even if only for few minutes.
What is your definition of success?
Success is what you want to it to be. We all set goals in our life and reaching those goals can define our success. In life, with your family, or at work.
In my “restaurant life” I have been lucky to receive several accolades for the quality of our food, both here in New York City and back home in Italy.
I was recently invited to Napoli and presented with an award for my work promoting Italian culture in the world.
In Italy, many acclaimed publications consider us the best pizzeria in the USA.
In New York City, we have been named the best pizza or pasta several times.
All those achievements can be (and are) considered signs of success.
They are all extremely valuable to me, but in all honesty I consider myself successful every time I thank a customer for dining with us and they insist on thanking me for their experience at our restaurant. The feeling that satisfies me the most is when someone says: “Thank you, I felt like I was at home”.
Being able to give a warm and “homey” feeling to our clients is one of the most satisfying things that can happen to a restaurateur.
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
Obviously, not everything has been a smooth ride. Ups and downs are part of restaurant life, as much as for any other business.
The most important thing is to never give up and to learn from mistakes and failures, taking lessons for the future. Everyday you learn something new. It never ends.
My biggest failure, especially at a personal level, came from wrong partnerships; that was a big lesson. Since then, I try hard to get to know people I work with first before understanding what they know at a professional level.
Our work is team work, and I realized that is extremely important to get to know the people you are going to spend 12–14 hours of your day with, almost everyday, at a personal level.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Yes. This is New York City. You can never stop.
A new exciting project is in the works.
Something new, and something very exciting, that of course I cannot share as of yet. Sorry!!!
What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
First of all, I would tell them to give serious thought to what they are getting into. Restaurant life is extremely satisfying, but also very hard. You will end up spending most of your day at work and if passion is not a driver it becomes difficult.
Second, my biggest advice is to be ready to work in a team. You are all part of the same team and each component is valuable to the success of the establishment. You can be the best chef on earth but without the support of the right server or without the proper communication you will fail. And, vice versa.
Primadonnas are not welcome in this industry.
What is the key to creating the perfect dish?
Simplicity is the key. In my opinion, a perfect dish only has a few high quality ingredients (no more than five) which all have to be perfectly balanced by a great Chef.
It is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes food for a living, what does this saying mean to you?
I am better known for my “people” skills than any other. I love to be with people. My job is to put people together around the table. I consider myself an entertainer more than a restaurateur. I am not a big fan of very formal settings where even a laugh can bother the quite experience of other diners. I like my restaurant to be fun, alive, and vibrant, where it’s ok if a customer jumps on a table and starts to dance or if another table starts to sing loud. People don’t go out just to eat. When people go out, they want to be entertained, they want to feel special, they want to have good time. My ideal restaurant is a place where people go to socialize, and eat a great meal.
What are your “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1.The amount of time you spend at a restaurant. It is amazing. I am at the restaurant 10–12 hours a day and sometimes I also do some work at home. I have to wake up at 7 AM to see my kids before they go to school, even if I got home at 2 AM the night before.
2. Be ready to listen and satisfy the most unlikely request. Menu changes, special accommodations, special requests from guests, you name it. We get them all. Once someone asked me for butter to spread on the pizza crust. Obviously I did not give it to him. I am too loyal to my pizza recipe to allow something like that to happen. He went to a deli across street and purchased his own butter!!!
3. It is very difficult to find professional help. In Italy being a server, for example, is a profession. Most of the people in the hospitality industry in New York City are either students or aspiring actors. None are a server for life. Not many take the job as a serious and long term profession, which makes it difficult to recruit.
4. New Yorkers eat everything every time of the day … they never stop. When I opened my first restaurant we used to close between 3PM and 5PM, between lunch and dinner service. That’s impossible! Today, you cannot close at all. Customers want to eat at 4 Pm and you have to serve them at 4PM … Lesson learned the hard way …
5. On a good note? New York City is New York City and anything can happen. It could happen that your favorite actor or your favorite singer walks through the door unannounced and wants to eat your food. That was a great thing to discover, but I had no idea. One night we kept Sarah Jessica Parker waiting in line for 15 minutes before we realized it was her.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement to bring the greatest good to the biggest group of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger…
Wow… well I guess I would make food available to all people by asking everyone to eat less food. Moving from Italy I was always impressed by the huge portions that were served in the USA and being in the business by the huge amount of waste that you see in many establishments. If we all ate less, then everyone could probably eat.
Too often people describe a restaurant by the size of the portions they serve. I have always focused on the quality of food more than the quantity. People have to understand that too much food is not healthy. “Eat less so we can all eat” sounds like a great slogan for a great campaign.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US for whom you would love to cook and why?
I consider myself very fortunate to have served food to some very well-known celebrities. New York City is a place where everyone goes at least once in their life and I happen to serve everyone’s favorite food: Pizza.
Well, if I should ask for someone in particular, I would say Bono of U2. I grew up listening to his music and he is such an inspiration. All that he does for the world is just amazing. He is a regular in New York, so never say never … another dream may come true!!!