East End Eats: Nick & Toni’s Turns 20

20080801jeffsalaway.jpg Hamptons institution Nick & Toni’s turned 20 this summer, and it hasn’t made it any easier to get a reservation. "It’s not impossible," says longtime manager Bonnie Munshin, whose advice includes being flexible on time, putting your name on their waiting list (which they do call), jockeying for a space at the bar (where they do serve the full menu), or being willing to eat on the patio or porch where seating is first come, first served. “It’s the summer,” Munshin said. “You’re on vacation. So relax.” In other words, don’t expect to get a seat at one of the 23 coveted tables in the main dining room. They are are booked through Labor Day.

For those who do get a seat at the bar or elsewhere, the most exciting ingredients in the meal are often the ever changing mix of produce from the restaurant’s own one-acre plot out back. Of course, there’s the basil that goes into pesto and garnishes various dishes. But the kitchen is also harvesting a bucket of zucchini blossoms every two days, dipping them in a white wine and flour batter, before deep frying. A rainbow of heirloom eggplants are showing up in the vegetable mix from the wood roasted oven. And soon, the restaurant’s own watermelon will star in a salad along side chopped black olive, ricotta salata cheese, onions marinated in lemon juice and fresh mint (also from the garden).

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The impressive garden is just one facet that gives this sometimes intimidating celebrity hangout a more down home feel. At its core, Nick & Toni’s is a family restaurant. Not in the TGIF sense, of course. But in the sense that, since its founding by restaurateur Jeff Salaway two decades ago, it has cultivated a family of locals, from the farmers and fisheries it buys from and the local schools where its chefs teach cooking, to celebrity regulars (from Isaac Mizrahi to Florence Fabricant to Eric Ripert), and accomplished New York chefs (from North Fork Table and Inn pastry chef Claudia Fleming to Marc Meyer of Hundred Acres, Five Points and Cookshop, from Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar and Grill to Tom Colicchio of Craft.) All have fond memories and a deep allegiance to this place that has always felt so authentic, simply because it juggled the local with the ever-important influences from away.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a family reunion potluck of sorts at the Great Chefs Dinner to benefit the Jeff’s Kitchen, a state-of-the-art kitchen-classroom at the Hayground School, supported by a science lab, garden and greenhouse, which the late Salaway helped conceive. It also benefited the school’s Jeff Salaway Scholarship Fund. Under a big tent in the restaurant’s parking lot, a cast of top East End and New York chefs prepared samplings for a few hundred, while a smaller group of VIP guests paid $1,500 and dined on fluke with dried miso prepared by Toshio Tomita of Nobu, jumbo asparagus with lobster ravigote from Ripert of Le Bernadin, and wood grilled Long Island duck breast, peach mostarda, foie gras, and basil jus prepared by Laurent Tourondel of the BLT restaurants.

“It’s the heart and soul of the food scene out here in the Hamptons,” said Paul Del Favero, who was the executive chef at Nick & Toni’s for seven years in the early 1990s, but tonight was manning two massive TurboChef ovens and turning out succulent baby lamb chops with salsa verde and local Satur Farm greens. He made the trip from Vegas where he is the executive chef at Mesa Grill in Caesar’s Palace, which he called, with no detectable irony, “a completely different kind of scene.” “Jeff [Salaway] was a great inspiration for chefs, for customers, and for friends.”

In some ways, Salaway’s goal of offering the sort of Italian food that you could only get in Italy, bolstered by seafood, produce and other East End ingredients, has become easier to fulfill. “When I first started cooking here there was one farmer interested and, if he showed up at 6 on Friday night, I was lucky,” said Gayle Arnold, a private chef and cooking teacher, who became the founding chef when Salaway lured her away from Wolfgang Puck’s in California with a package of biscotti. (It was also a time when the restaurant was “kind of slow” on Fridays and “kind of dead” on Sundays, a phenomenon not witnessed in years.)

“It wasn’t about sustainability,” Arnold continued. “We didn’t know that word. It was about what was fresh and great. And that meant getting to know the farming community.”

But, armed with a consciousness that flows through more and more kitchens in America, Nick & Toni’s has greatly expanded its garden, has helped launch a Healthy Bodies, Healthy Bays food program at the nearby Springs and East Hampton Middle Schools, and is hostingthe East Hampton farmers market, for the second year in a row, in the same parking lot where the benefit was being held.

“We pulled these radishes out of the ground this morning,” said current executive chef Joseph Realmuto of the poached sea scallop dish he prepared for the evening. Realmuto also designs the menus at Nick and Toni’s sister restaurants, Townline BBQ and La Fondita, and is behind many of the recent community initiatives.

The turnout and the smiles seemed to vindicate all that this kitchen has tried to accomplish since 1988. But as he juggled a ceaseless stream of questions from the visiting chefs, Realmuto was focused on more immediate satisfaction. “It’s in our restaurant, but it’s not my food,” he said. “Which is kind of cool, because I’m tired of looking at my food.”

About the Author: Brian Halweil is the publisher of Edible East End, the magazine that celebrates the harvest of the Hamptons and the North Fork. He is also publisher of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan (launching September 2008). He writes about the things we eat from the old whaling village of Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his wife tend a home garden and orchard and go clamming when the tides allow.

Nick & Toni's

136 N Main St, East Hampton NY 11937 (map) 631-324-3550
nickandtonis.com