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On the Menu - Seafood's a hit at two N.C. ethnic concepts

Restaurateur sources prime product from Boston and Honolulu for his Italian and Mexican menus

Red Snapper Veracruz, with tomato and red pepper sauce, is a popular dish at Cantina 1511. - Cantina 1511
Joan M. Lang
April 01, 2005

Running specials has been an important strategy in helping staff become more comfortable with cooking methods and times, and Scibelli has found himself refiguring station assignments in order to put the strongest cooks on seafood prep.

More seafood is undoubtedly in the cards for both restaurants, as well as in the Italian-style catering division that makes up a great deal of the businesses’ volume. Scibelli is currently serving anywhere from 500 to 1,000 pounds of seafood a week at both restaurants, and that volume is growing.

“I’ll certainly add additional fish and shellfish specialties as the demand continues to grow,” he says.Menus grow and change for a variety of different reasons. In the case of Mama Ricotta’s and Cantina 1511 in Charlotte, N.C., a new relationship with a purveyor has led to more seafood items on the menu.

“With two restaurants, it made sense to look at new options,” says owner Frank Scibelli, who opened the Italian Mama Ricotta’s in 1992, followed by the upscale Mexican Cantina last summer.

Mama Ricotta’s has built a reputation in town for home-style Italian fare, much of it based on Scibelli family recipes, including house-made sausages, sauces, bread and even fresh mozzarella. Four years ago, when the restaurant moved to larger quarters, Scibelli installed a wood-burning oven and began serving pizzas, panini and other baked items.

“Ever since, I’ve been looking for new ways to use the oven, and simple, Italian-style seafood dishes lend themselves well to high-temperature roasting techniques,” he explains.

Then, too, from a competitive standpoint, seafood is becoming more popular in this area.

For years, Scibelli had bought calamari steaks and cut them into strips for his signature Calamari Fries appetizer (served with fresh tomato-and-caper aioli), but an increasingly seafood-savvy customer base was asking for the more common ring-and-tentacle presentation.

Unhappy with the products available locally, Scibelli started researching fresh squid and discovered that some of the best product comes from around Point Judith, R.I. And that, in turn, led him to Foley Fish Co. in Boston, whose product-quality commitment rang an immediate bell with Scibelli.

“Adding a purveyor that gives you a product that’s better is a great reason to adapt the menu,” he says. “No one else in town is serving this kind of quality.”

Scibelli started bringing in not only calamari, but also Snug Harbor mussels, countneck clams (in the quahog family), dry sea scallops and both farm-raised and wild-caught salmon from Foley. New menu items include Zuppa di Pesce (clams, mussels and scallops in a rich tomato, garlic and white-wine seafood broth), Capesante al Forno (baked jumbo scallops wrapped in apple-wood-smoked bacon and served with roasted-garlic/Fontina-cheese cream sauce), and Salmoni Arrostiti (a wood-oven-roasted salmon fillet topped with black-olive pes­to), as well as oven-roasted mussels and an Italian-style seafood stew called cacciucco, which is also finished in the oven.

All of the items were tested first as specials, offered two or three times a month for at least one quarter.

“That gives us a chance to measure our customers’ interest, and it also allows the kitchen to tinker with the item until we’ve gotten it right,” explains Scibelli.

Encouraged by patron interest in the new items, Scibelli also began bringing in fish specials; at Mama’s, many of these fish are simply prepared in the oven and served whole.

Because of the relatively high volume of purchases, Scibelli can get the fish flown in or Fed Ex’d several times a week and is able to charge relatively moderate prices, especially compared with the competition.

“The scallop appetizer, for instance, features three scallops for $9,” he says, “while a competitor charges $26 for five. We look pretty good because of this.”

That price point is important, notes Scibelli, because moderate prices are fundamental to the Mama Ricotta’s concept, which touts an average dinner check of just $20 to $22.

“I want my customers to be able to enjoy fresh seafood without paying an arm and a leg.”

It requires some vigilance, he admits, but the results are worth it.

“You have to keep an eye on food costs and pay attention to what’s seasonal and plentiful. You have to be proactive,” he explains.

Controlling waste is also important, but items like the zuppa di pesce and cacciucco are both great vehicles for trim and overproduction.

Not surprisingly, Mama Ricotta’s success with seafood has started rubbing off on Cantina 1511, which specializes in regional Mexican specialties such as barbacoa (slow-cooked pork), chile rellenos and various “taqueria” items, inspired by the roadside food stands of Mexico, which specialize in made-to-order tacos and burritos.

New England-style shellfish doesn’t really have a place on the Cantina menu, although Scibelli has added items like Baja Style Salmon and the occasional scallop taco or ceviche special using product from Foley.

To augment Cantina’s seafood selection, Scibelli turned to Honolulu Fish Co., which supplies snapper, mahi, tuna and other Hawaiian varieties.

He’s still in the process of testing seafood specials at the Mexican location before changing the menu permanently, but recent hits include snapper Veracruz style (topped with a fresh tomato and sweet pepper and olive sauce), tuna barbacoa and various kinds of fish tacos.

In the kitchens of both restaurants, more seafood has brought some challenges for the cooking staff.

“What’s the point of getting excellent seafood and not handling it properly?” asks Scibelli, rhetorically.

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