The search for the best pizza on the East End of Long Island can be a long one. For many people, it goes by way of Sicily, arriving on Main Street in Riverhead. For one in particular, there’s a lot more than pizza at the heart of this journey.
“I came away from Sicily when I was 30 years old and I tried to live the American dream,” says Frank Spatola, owner of Parto’s Restaurant, with a chuckle at his slight cliché. “This is a dream for me.”
A gaggle of Dan’s Papers Best of the Best awards hang on the wall in Parto’s—with another from 2011 on its way—amid the décor designed (by Frank himself) to give visitors a little bit of the Old World. Italian music plays in the background as Frank sits, sipping a cappuccino, discussing the fine brickwork that separates the pizzeria area from the restaurant dining area. He laid it himself, using old brick from the building that plenty of people would have discarded.
The building he bought on Main Street ten years ago dates back to 1729. Standing above the original stone and mortar in the basement of what was the first Suffolk County Courthouse, the current structure was rebuilt in the 1850s. The brick in Frank’s design and still on the walls tells a simple truth—there’s a lot of history here.
“I maintain as much of the original as I can,” he says. “I wouldn’t change it. That’s not me. I like to maintain historical things. Some people destroy it, but I want to maintain it. When you destroy your history, you destroy a piece of yourself.”
So Frank holds onto valuable aspects of the past, giving them new life wherever he can—notably in the pizza and dishes that have produced those Dan’s Best of the Best awards over the years. “The tomato sauce is direct from my mom,” he says with the pride of a good Sicilian son. “And the marinara with the plum tomatoes is also from my mom. The meatballs, that’s direct from my mom.
“I’ve cooked since I was a kid,” he continues. “I always helped my mom. If she made sauce, I was there chopping the onions. If she made marinara sauce, I was there chopping the garlic. Stew, ravioli, Bolognese sauce, fish, whatever. I love it. It’s a passion.”
Passion. It’s a word Frank uses often, whether talking about pasta or pizza or painting. It’s a word that drives him after years in the business, the reason there’s a smile on his face (well, that and the chocolate dessert he’s sampling). “When you don’t have the passion anymore, change jobs. If you’re a mechanic, if you do it with passion, you’ll do it better than some other guy who thinks he knows everything. When you kill that feeling inside, it’s over.”
Frank’s first job here in the U.S. was construction, but a culinary career seems to have been waiting for him. “I was in downtown Manhattan—25, 26 years ago, doing construction—and one day I had to work a double shift, and I froze my fingers, my face, I couldn’t even take a shower because the warm water was like sharp glass on my skin. So I thought then, let me go work inside. So I worked in a pizzeria restaurant. I didn’t know anything, but every single day, I’d see how they’d make things, and the day after I was able to make it.”
There’s no hubris when Frank tells this story, sitting near a painting he created on a mural of tiles on the wall above a table just inside the front window. Simply a confidence that if he tries, he’ll succeed. He’s never trained as an artist, a fact he reveals when asked about the nearby painting and others hung about the restaurant, but the process behind his artistry, he assures, is the same as anything else he does.
“Cooking is like painting. When you’re painting, it just comes from here, the colors, they everything, the cooking is the same. You taste it, maybe it needs a little salt, a little pepper, a little…that’s cooking. You can learn skills, but then the best things are inside you mind, on your tongue, in your nose. You can take classes, but it has to come from inside.”
And that is exactly where many of his dishes come from. “Most of my specialties, I invented,” he tells. “I taste it, I like it, my wife and kids taste it, they like it, and we put it on the menu.” Like the seafood-laden Risotto Parto with its pink sauce, for example. “People said, ‘You put a pink sauce with the fish?’ But it’s good. It’s got a delicate taste.” Or the Penne Imperatore, an ambrosial concoction of sausage, ham, artichoke, mushrooms, marsala, garlic, cream and lemon. “When I made this with marsala and a touch of lemon, everybody said I was crazy. But I said, ‘No, this is the way I have to make it.’ I have to do it my way.”
When it comes to Parto’s pizza, his way has proved so successful by embracing the differences between American and Italian tastes in pizza. “This are two big differences. Over here, we use a lot of cheese. In Italy, we don’t. Italian pizza, they use a touch of fresh mozzarella, vegetables, fish. But over here, everything has to be with cheese. Americans live on cheese, milk, cream, butter. In Italy, we use different ingredients, but now everything is global. Pepperoni—I never remembered it, but now they do it in Italy. So here I do it the old-fashioned way with an American touch.”
Parto’s Restaurant is located at 12 West Main Street, Riverhead, NY. You can visit www.partosrestaurant.com or call 631-727-4828.