Chef talk: Tommaso Verdillo

Growing up in suburban Connecticut, the offspring of two ardent restaurant-goers, I passed much of my childhood in the backseat of a car heading to Manhattan in pursuit of food.

The excursions I most enjoyed were to Little Italy. Angelo’s, Grotta Azzurra, Luna – these were our spots, and I spent many lunches and dinners happily gorging myself at all three restaurants. Along with the garlic, there was always a whiff of menace in the air; the mafia was still a heavy presence in Little Italy, and for all we knew, the dapper gents at the adjoining table might have been made men.

In time, we moved on from Manhattan (“too yuppified,” as my father put it) and began travelling to other boroughs to get our Italian fix. For a couple of years, we were regulars at Gargiulo’s, a cavernous restaurant in Coney Island. When I was in my late teens, my father was introduced to a homey restaurant on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx called Dominick’s. It remains a favourite. So, too, does Tommaso in the Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn, between Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst.

Tommaso is my contribution to our family’s long-running love affair with Italian cuisine; my wife and I were first taken there by a friend in 2001, and it has been a family gathering place ever since. The food is generally terrific, but that’s only part of the attraction. The other draw is Tommaso himself – Tom Verdillo, the restaurant’s Brooklyn-born, opera-singing chef and owner. With a thick accent that betrays his local roots, the 67-year-old Verdillo has an interest in food that extends far beyond Italian cuisine and the confines of his Brooklyn neighbourhood. At the same time, he and his restaurant are a delicious throwback to a slice of New York life that has all but disappeared.

Verdillo, the youngest of 10 children, originally hoped to be an opera singer, and even auditioned for the Manhattan School of Music. But his family could not afford the tuition costs, and he became a cook instead. He worked as a caterer, and even did a stint as an airline chef at John F. Kennedy Airport, before opening Tommaso in 1974. It was a time when Dyker Heights, Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst were still heavily Italian, and, as food goes, it was a self-contained community. Meat, fish, bread, cheese – for restaurateurs, all of these things were just around the corner. “Everything was here,” says Verdillo.

Like many successful restaurateurs, Verdillo caught an early break. Not long after he opened Tommaso, the Gambino crime family opened a “social club” right next door. Legendary mafia don Paul Castellano, the head of the Gambinos, soon became a Tommaso regular, along with his lieutenants. The mobsters not only patronised Tommaso; they were among its suppliers, furnishing Verdillo with the finest steaks, veal chops, and other provisions. He, in turn, provided them with classic southern Italian fare, and also a first-rate wine list. Castellano and company had a yen for great wines – top Barolos and the like – and Verdillo assembled one of New York’s most renowned cellars, filled with acclaimed offerings not just from Italy, but also from France and the US, many of them attractively priced (wine critic Robert Parker became a Tommaso regular, too).

Verdillo says Castellano was “like a big brother to me”. The mafia boss would bring his family – his real family – to the restaurant for holiday meals, and Verdillo catered many events at his house on Staten Island. Castellano met a bloody end, but not while eating at Tommaso; in 1985, he was gunned down outside Sparks steak house in Manhattan on the orders of his rival John Gotti.

Even as he was immersed in this very insular world, Verdillo frequently travelled abroad, returning to Brooklyn toting new ingredients and ideas. However, it is the staples on the menu that keep drawing us back to Tommaso – the simple but fetching spaghetti with a light tomato sauce, basil and fresh mozzarella, the sauce made of tomatoes harvested from Verdillo’s sister’s New Jersey garden; the sublime spaghetti carbonara; the rich, soulful pasta e fagioli; the gargantuan grilled veal chop with sautéed mushrooms and the most ethereal roasted potatoes I know.

In the evening, a few locals congregate in the small bar at the front of the restaurant, while at the back, standing alongside the piano, Verdillo will periodically belt out an aria to entertain his guests. He knows that sentimentality is part of what keeps customers coming through the door, and that is fine by him. “People want to remember,” he says. “They want food that reminds them of grandma’s Sunday dinner, and as long as they want it, I’m going to keep giving it to them.”

Tommaso, 1464 86th Street, Brooklyn, New York, +1 718 236 9883 www.tommasoinbrooklyn.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.