By Colleen Lent[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
Hampton and Exeter inside the new restaurant in Hampton recently.
[Hampton Union staff photo by Jackie Ricciardi]
HAMPTON - When the natives of pre-Renaissance Naples, a large city in central Italy, were adding herbs, olive oil, and mozzarella cheese to flatbread, they probably never imagined their creation would reinvent itself over the centuries as it has in America.
Today, there's low fat, frozen, stuffed crust, microwave, bite-sized, and pineapple and ham pizzas. Yet, brothers Sal and Anthony DeVito, owners of Sal and Anthony's Ristorante in Hampton, are erring on tradition by sharing a slice of their Italian heritage with the introduction of authentic Neapolitan pizza and other family fare at their newest restaurant site.
"This is the new baby," Sal says, sitting in the lounge of the Lafayette Road, Hampton location.
"The other place is established," Anthony added, referring to the Water Street, Exeter location. The first site evolved from a sandwich shop to an old world eatery, offering everything from veal verbenne sautéed in veal stock with brandy and blanketed in blanched asparagus and fontina cheese; to steak balsamico served over gorgonzola mashed potatoes; to brushetta with roma tomatoes, fresh basil, and mozzarella cheese.
The brothers say food critics have compared their entrees to those of the North End in Boston.
"It's really more rewarding than even money," Anthony says, explaining that he and his sibling gauge their success on compliments, rather than just currency.
With the success of the Exeter site and a combined 75 years of restaurant experience tucked in their apron pockets, last year the brothers decided to don their entrepreneurial hats for a second time. The newest site offers an expanded menu of lighter fare and pizza, entertainment, and both casual and traditional dining rooms.
If a husband and wife are celebrating their wedding anniversary, they can shine their shoes, press their slacks, and reach for their tie or pearls to enjoy filet mignon with black fig sauce and bottle of wine in the more formal dining area. If a family is returning from a day at a soccer game or Hampton Beach, the parents and kids can brush off the sand from their sneakers or sandals and shorts to enjoy a brick oven pizza and soda in the casual dining area.
"Our pizzas are the real object," Sal says, adding that the brothers are hoping the new addition to the menu will expand their market reach. At the same time, they say a lower priced menu item doesn't mean lower standards.
"We're doing it the old-fashioned way," Anthony says.
Since their adolescent years, the brothers have been students of culinary greats - their mother Theresa DeVito, grandmother Genovessa DeVito, and aunt Mary Grella, all perpetuating the traditions of Avellino, a province in Italy near Naples.
"The food was incorporated in our culture," Anthony says. "We've been doing it our whole lives, so we know it."
The "old fashioned way" means buying fresh herbs, cheeses, and meats; bypassing processed or frozen ingredients; and understanding the rewards of long hours in the kitchen.
Anthony does recommend using canned tomatoes imported from Italy, as they're harvested and packed when fully vine-ripened and in season, resulting in a richer flavor. While tomato basil and marina sauce can be prepared in less than an hour, a pot of traditional ragu takes three hours to prepare.
There aren't any shortcuts. There aren't any recipe cards. There aren't any equivalents in a vacuum-sealed jar.
As restaurants across the country are serving up frozen fried mozzarella sticks, pasta with sauce from 10-gallon drums, and sliced ham and cheese "antipasto" roll-ups, the DeVitos say American palettes aren't being treated to a true flavor of Italy.
"It never has the rich, wholesome taste," Sal says.
On a related note, Anthony says younger taste buds are being shortchanged, as fried chicken nuggets, French fries, and cheeseburgers are becoming regular meals.
Drive-up windows and microwave meals are seemingly more economical, the brothers say.
Yet, Anthony says his restaurant offers child-sized portions of fettuccine alfredo and pollo alla parmigiano (chicken parmesan), providing kids a transcontinental taste test flight for under $6.
The brothers realize that family eating patterns evolve with shifts in social and cultural norms and values.
"Everybody is running," Anthony says, shaking his head.
Yet, the brothers don't want to see their family traditions erode.
"We grew up in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx," Sal says. The rituals of their past are part of their routine today. Periodically, Anthony's internal voice asks a rhetorical question: Who will make the sauce when he dies?
"In my mind, it's a big responsibility," he says, adding that he hopes his son will pick up the saucepot and spoon in future years.
Sal nods in agreement. Culinary preservation is cultural preservation.
"Everything is a matter of dollars and cents and what is faster," he says.
According to Sal, "progress" in cooking only happens when efficiency doesn't compromise quality, which is a rare phenomenon. He remembers his mother watching cooking shows and verbally grimacing when the chef skipped a step or opted for a processed ingredient. Often convenience emerges from the kitchen victorious, beating taste.
"Then it's lost," Sal says. The family recipes for their entrees, pizza, and sauces are permanently imprinted in their memories.
"It's not in books," Sal says. "It's our own family thing."
However, the brothers are willing to experiment with the entertainment roster and drink menu, offering everything from folk music to pop tunes and espresso martinis to cosmopolitans, to ice cream drinks.
As the DeVitos continue to talk about special events while walking through their new site of green and cranberry wallpaper, brass fixtures, and muted gold draperies, they say the décor was already in place when they moved in a year ago. It's tasteful, they add, but doesn't capture the character of the new restaurant. The brothers say while their menu may be classified as "gourmet," as all of the offerings are made from scratch, the presentation and atmosphere doesn't need to be fancy.
"It's all in the preparation," Sal says.
As Sal and Anthony mull over their future redecoration plans and location behind the Inn of Hampton, the conversation takes a philosophical turn. They surprisingly discover that Michelangelo and Julia Child share a common trait - patience, an essential ingredient in a culinary masterpiece.
"It's a dying art because nobody wants to do it anymore," Sal says, dismissing "mass produced" chefs.
After all, a typical day starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m. for the DeVitos. Yet, they don't mind.
"I feel like this is my home," Anthony says.
"It's not like going to a job," Sal adds.