When did your interest in food start? How has your relationship with food changed throughout your life, especially as you’ve followed different career paths?
My interest in food started from a young age. I can’t really pinpoint how or why. I think I’m just curious by nature. I never really wanted to order off a kids' menu, I always wanted to try the weird things. I always liked to work with my hands. I’m from a pretty big Italian American family, so food was always a way of life. I guess it just seemed like a natural progression.
What was the transition like moving from a role as a professional chef to venturing into a solo project? What influenced this decision?
I was gradually becoming tired of working with food that wasn’t making me feel great. Like most people in this industry, I was classically trained and subsequently taught that butter, fat, salt and acid make everything taste better. While those can be important tools, there are plenty of other means to get there in a more health-supporting way. It’s actually a challenge I’ve come to enjoy at this point. It’s always amazing to see what new flavor profiles you can create with whole and plant based foods.
My role as restaurant owner feels way more responsible than anything I’ve done before in this industry. At the end of the day, it's me that is directly accountable for what people put in their bodies so it's a whole different ball game. There are definitely plenty of places in NYC to get a fantastic meal, but not very many spots where you can get something that will leave you feeing better, and satisfied. That’s always been the goal.
Who is Rita? Is the restaurant named for someone? How did you come up with the name?
For the longest time, I’ve had a love affair with Spain, specifically their simplistic, unadulterated and high quality approach to food and cooking. I’ve spent a significant time traveling in and around the country and believe me, it’s hard to find a bad meal! I love all the elemental flavors of their cuisine and often find myself relying on those ingredients as building blocks in my food (olives, anchovy, garlic, etc). I wanted the restaurant to have a connection with that special place. I kept coming back to my favorite tapa, a “Gilda” which is a very simple snack served on a toothpick consisting of a delicious olive, a pickled pepper and an oil-cured anchovy threaded between. As an object alone, it looks like a curvaceous woman dancing. It was invented in the 1940’s right around the time the classic film Gilda was released starring Rita Hayworth as a Flamenco dancer. Rita was adored in Spain, she was actually half Spanish and her father was a well known Flamenco instructor. Needless to say, they named the tapa after her starring role in that film. I always loved that story, and since the restaurant is 100% woman-owned, it felt appropriate to embody her and some of that feminine energy. Fun fact: she was also born and raised in Brooklyn.
You are both a chef and esthetician. How does that inform the menu at Rita? Have you always seen beauty and food as fundamentally connected or was that something you discovered?
Truthfully, I wasn’t blessed with “perfect skin,” I’m super sensitive and prone to redness, rosacea, acne, etc. Like most in the same boat, I struggled to find the answer. All of the conventional methods I tried were expensive, time consuming and ultimately disappointing. As witness to my frustrations, a dear friend lent me her copy of “Food and Healing” by Anne Marie Colbin. As naive as it sounds to me now, it completely opened my eyes to the connection between diet, overall health and skin health. Like so many these days, I started questioning what I was putting into and even on top of my body. I quickly started noticing that this subtle change made a world of a difference. This knowledge led me to pursue esthetics as a hobby and a way to round out a holistic approach to health. We use this information to help us guide our menu at Rita, but the intention was never to hit you over the head with it. We don’t preach, we don’t judge. We do things our way. And we hope you can taste and feel the difference.
How have your former jobs influenced this latest endeavor? Did your experience at CAP shape or inform any off your choices at Rita?
I had worked almost a decade in professional kitchens and restaurants all over NYC when I started burning out hard and fast. The hours were insane, the work was hard and most of the foods made me feel tired and sluggish. Around this time, I had heard there was an opening at the now-closed “Saltie” located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I knew they were doing things differently. I had been there once or twice and always left feeling incredible and inspired. Needless to say I jumped at the chance to work there. The owners, Caroline Fidanza and Rebecca Collerton truly opened my eyes and palate to the magic of vegetable based foods, careful preparations and responsible sourcing. Rebecca was actually the friend above that lent me the book “Food and Healing” which eventually led me to pursue herbal medicines and natural esthetics. I left Saltie after about a year to enroll in a Licensed Esthetics program in the hopes of bridging the gap between nutrition and wellness. Working at CAP allowed me to take this knowledge even further and to explore adaptogens and other forms of edible and plant based supplements I never knew existed to create superpowered layers in the food I was already making.
Do you cook at home? If so, how does your cooking style differ from the cooking you do in the restaurant?
These days I don’t cook at home as much as I’d like. I spend so much of my day inside a kitchen, it’s often the last place I want to be when the day is done (especially during summertime in a hot and humid NYC)! When I do cook for myself, I try to keep things fresh, lightly seasoned and gently cooked. Despite running a health focused restaurant with careful ingredients, restaurant food can generally be more aggressive than typical home cooked meals. It’s been really important to give my palate and digestion a break when I can. Kitchari is a great reset.
When developing your menu what were your major inspirations? Did you have a certain type of person in mind when you were making it? Who comes to eat at Rita?
The ultimate goal has always been to provide a space that’s friendly, approachable and community oriented. I never intended to have a ‘concept,' it was more important to me to have ‘values' and let the rest of the space grow organically over time. Our customer base has surprised me more than I imagined. I knew the type of person that would most likely come to eat here everyday, but I’m always delightfully surprised when I look up and it’s folks from all across the board.
What’s been the reaction to the restaurant from the local community? Has it created a community of its own?
We are incredibly fortunate to be a part of Red Hook, a very special Brooklyn neighborhood. Red Hook is a light filled, cobblestoned “village" located on the waterfront just beneath the tip of Manhattan. It was historically home to all longshoreman and dockworkers and still maintains a ‘seaside village’ flavor. It’s difficult to get here via public transportation and thus remains tucked away from the hustle and bustle of NYC. Because of the generous light and old warehouse spaces, Red Hook is home to all sorts of artists and makers. This community has been through a lot, especially in the last few years following Hurricane Sandy. As a result, everyone really looks out for each other. 90% of Rita was built with donated materials and time from our neighbors and friends. I couldn’t have done this anywhere else.
What is your favorite dish at Rita?
Right now, it’s actually a component rather than dish. We’ve been working on this umami-boosting vegan ‘sprinkle’ to add to salads, soups, etc. We’ve repurposed our local coffee shop's spent loose oolong tea leaves by dehydrating and crumbling them, and adding them into a mix of nori, toasted sesame, pumpkin, hemp, sunflower seeds and sea salt. It’s addictively crunchy, savory and salty. I want it on everything!
What do you hope people feel when they walk into Rita? What do you want people to take with them (as in a thought, feeling, etc.) when they leave? In other words, do you hope that your spot has a larger influence on the world?
First off, I want them to feel comfortable. It’s easy to appeal to a certain crowd but it’s harder to appeal to the masses especially as a more health focused restaurant. The term “health” can mean different things to different people and it's important to meet people where they're at. We all started somewhere on this journey, and “health" to me can mean something entirely different to you. My goal has always been to make great food, but not at the expense of making you feel less than ideal after you eat it. I’ve selfishly created the restaurant that I’ve always wished existed, somewhere casual you can eat at everyday, feel good about it and be surrounded by a great and positive community. There is a magic to Red Hook and an undeniable charm to the folks that exist within this space and I truly hope our customers feel that when they are here.
What are your favorite products from CAP?
The Matcha We serve this at Rita, and it never fails to impress. Easily the best, cleanest and purest Matcha I’ve tried to date.
Sun Potion Ashwagandha because fried adrenals and restaurant ownership are REAL. At Rita, we mix this with roasted dandelion and chicory root to make our a “decaf coffee."
Marie Veronique Treatment Retinol Worth every penny. Also, Marie is a complete and total legend and inspiration, and quite an impressive foodie!
Vintner’s Daughter This was a surprise for me. I tried every oil under the sun, and nothing worked. I avoided VD because I tend to overreact with so many essential oils, but this has been pure chemistry with my skin and the natural fragrance of all of the essential oils is incredibly transportive.
Shaman Shack Sea Clear Miso Slather this on anything, throw in the dehydrator and you’ve got some of the best snacks around.