Check out the New Bontá in Hampton

GM Bruno Marini Welcomes You Back

By Rachel Forrest

Hampton Union, Tuesday, July 13, 2010

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
The general manager, Bruno Marini, of Bontá Restaurant and Bar located
on Rt. 27 in Hampton on Tuesday, June 15, 2010.

[Scott Yates photo].

HAMPTON -- One of the first things Bruno Marini wanted to do when he became the new general manager of Hampton's Bontá Restaurant back in December was to find the key to the doors leading from the bar to the patio and open them as wide as they could go, to let the sunshine and breezes in.

He found that key and now that the weather is mild, the lounge area at Bontá opens out into vibrant landscaping, a patio area and, from outside, into a view of the new Bontá with a new menu, a newly promoted chef, and a whole new attitude at this 10-year-old restaurant that needed more than a little refreshing. Bruno Marini was just the man to turn Bontá around.

"It was broken. It was a plate you bought and it was beautiful, but it fell and it broke and everyone tried to glue it back together," said Marini.

Marini isn't just putting this restaurant back together. He spent months observing, testing and planning for a revival that includes renovating the interiors, the menu and the overall vibe.

"My goal was to resuscitate the restaurant. It had the reputation of being like a private dining club, it put people off. We want people to feel comfortable, that no matter how much you spend, you get the same treatment, whether you're in the bar having a burger or in the dining room having a full dinner."

Marini was approached by Bontá owners Paul Montrone and Paul Meister in mid-2009 to come and take a look at the restaurant and help turn it around. They knew Marini from his days as the former general manager and wine director of the Federalist XV Beacon, now Moo. His most recent stint was as the man behind the opening of Norwood's Olivadi. He's opened or worked in some of the city's top restaurants including Ambrosia, Davio's and Lydia Shire's Biba and Pignoli, and the partners knew that he was the right man to bring Bontá up to city standards.

"I came in and did a study of what was working and not working. I did a few secret dining visits and on one visit a chef came out of the kitchen and it was Andy Rose, the pastry chef — I've known him for years, I worked with him at Ambrosia back in 1998. It was such a surprise. I got an unplanned kitchen tour.

"For about the first two and half weeks I evaluated everything and things were pretty obvious, then the week after the holidays I laid it all out. I'm a huge problem identifier and an even bigger problem solver. I saw what needed to be done and they signed off on it."

The problems that needed solving included making the spaces "warmer," revving up the menu, and sparking up a staff that needed some inspiration.

Interior renovations include redecorating the private dining space in the back of the restaurant.

"The goal is to make it look like someone's dining room, we're adding fabric for warmth, putting in new cherry floors. The room holds 40 for a sit down dinner and about 75 for a standing party, but we don't want it to seem like a banquet room, it's a dining room. And the rest of the restaurant is lively, you can hear more upbeat music, it's livelier, and the lounge fits the energy level of what we want here."

The menu has also been revived.

"The menu fits our new environment. It's the same quality food throughout the whole restaurant. At the bar there's less pressure to have a full meal but you'll get the same quality of food. The menu was all over the map and we had to give it focus."

Executive Sous Chef Joel Conley had been with the restaurant for more than six years and Marini saw in him someone who had talent but hadn't been able to show it off. Because Marini has both front of the house and a culinary background, he's able to work hand in hand with Conley on the culinary aspect of the revitalization of Bontá.

"There has to be a give and take between the front of the house and the kitchen and that's one reason we don't have an executive chef. Clients will tie the chef to the restaurant so that when they leave, it's a problem. Everyone in the kitchen can cook these dishes because I work with Joel and the staff for that consistency."

There is a broad range of dishes offered in the bar and lounge area, all meant to be shared. Dishes like risotto fritters with mozzarella and red pepper aioli and the truffle and Parmesan Tater Tots with house made dipping sauces offer a touch of whimsy and more than a touch of fresh flavors. Also available is Bontá's signature artisanal flatbread menu, which ranges from classics such as the Margherita ($9) to the Julietta with caramelized onions, crumbled spicy sausage and fresh creamy ricotta. Bontá's dinner menu includes a seared shrimp "Saltimbocca" wrapped in prosciutto and sage served over fresh mozzarella and tomatoes tagliatelle alla Bolognese in half and full portions, oven roasted halibut with corn risotto and lemon butter sauce and a stuffed pork chop Milanese butterflied with prosciutto and fontina, roasted fingerling potatoes and sautéed swiss chard.

"We're using as much local produce and products as possible," Marini said. "We're baking bread for Edie Barker at Barker's Farm (Stratham) and we're getting whatever is in season from her — fiddlehead ferns, vegetables. We're getting a great dessert wine from Jewell Towne Vineyards right in North Hampton. We plan seasonally. The soft shell crab is coming in, but we don't wait for the fish people to tell us, we know what's coming in, we keep ourselves in tune with our ingredients. We're using the quality of vendors that fit into what we're doing here. We went back to what was the identity here. It's a contemporary Italian restaurant and we don't focus on just one region of Italy. We have New England ingredients of course, but in every dish there is always one Italian component. Even our sirloin burger has pancetta instead of the usual bacon."

The staff has also added an herb garden and have started it off with primarily Italian seasonings and vegetables like tomatoes, rhubarb and squash.

Marini said the menu is bigger than it was before but they were able to lower most of the prices and by the first week in July the wine list increased from 126 bottles to an impressive 600.

"We'll have bottles for $25 to $500 and no matter what you ask for, you'll get the same treatment when your wine is served," Marini said. "We're also going to have a wine dinner every month with five seated courses at about $100 with tax and tip included."

Marini said much of the staff stayed on during the changes, including beloved bartender Al Neri, who most know as Coach, but who Marini calls "The Ambassador." The new GM listened to staff people who hadn't been heard in many years.

"They were afraid to talk. It took a lot of convincing for them to say, 'help me out,' to start to give me feedback, but they knew my background and that I'd get things done. They'd never had an employee meeting before. They said, 'now we have someone who knows how to run a restaurant.' The only thing I wanted them to do is to let their personality lead and to help them feel that they are an invested part of the restaurant."

The staff is also trained in areas other than their own section or station so that anyone can deliver the food, present it and announce it.

Bontá is also involved with many charity events.

"People call me 'The Master of Free.' We'll recognize you and send out something extra for you to try and I do so many charity events. We're out there in the community. It's important."

Loyal, regular customers have appreciated the new Bontá, said Marini.

"Regulars who have been coming here for nine and a half years say it just tastes better. There are people who come here on the same night and sit at the same table every time and they're saying, 'Where did this food come from?' I had one customer who would never try out duck, never wanted to. I brought it out to him, free of charge. Now he orders the duck."

Bruno Marini turned that one diner around as he has turned around Bontá. The son of a restaurateur from Italy whose father never wanted him to go into the business has opened the doors wide to the possibilities and loves the challenge of making a difference.

"This is who I am and this is all the vision of what I see it becoming. We're bringing Bontá back to what Bontá was."

Find Bontá Restaurant at 287 Exeter Road, Hampton, 929-7932, www.Bontá.net

Go & Do: Bontá Restaurant
Location: 287 Exeter Road, Hampton
Info: 929-7972, www.Bontá.net

Bruno Marini, general manager of Bontá Restaurant in Hampton.
[Scott Yates photo]