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On the Menu: Quality, sustainability guide N.J. chef's menu

Whenever possible, Dimaio Cucina applies culinary values of Italy to fresh, local products

Dimaio's fresh mussels from Prince Edward Island are a customer favorite. - Dimaio Cucina
Joan M. Lang
December 01, 2005

Sal Passalacqua does his best to translate the ideals of his native Italy to the realities of a restaurant in northern New Jersey.

Born on the insular island of Sicily and raised in an Italian neighborhood in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the chef-owner of Dimaio Cucina in suburban Berkeley Heights, N.J., is accustomed to making meals from the soil and sea around him, each ingredient in its season.

“The vegetables, the meat, the fish, the cheeses, even the olive oil we used in Italy — all of it was raised and used right there,” says Dimaio, who came to this country and opened a pizza restaurant more than 28 years ago.

“If you went to a different region, you had a whole different set of ingredients to work with. Here, we’re used to getting our food from all over the world, and as chefs we have to work hard to get the same sense of place that comes naturally in places like Europe and South America.”

Whenever he can, Passalacqua buys local products, from native black sea bass to Jersey tomatoes and corn. But he’s the first to admit that this strategy can only go so far in an increasingly urbanized area where fish stocks have declined precipitously.

So the chef pays attention to his purchasing and buys only quality ingredients whose production and harvest are conducted as sustainably and responsibly as possible. For seafood, he works almost exclusively with True World Foods in New York, because he trusts the sales rep and the quality of products the company carries.

“They have a program where they’ll fax me a product list as it’s arriving to them, so that I know what they’re getting before they even receive it,” Passalacqua explains. “If I get my order to them by midnight, I’ll have it in-house the following morning, 18 or 42 hours out of the water.

“They’re also very reliable,” he adds. “If they say they’re selling you No. 1 sushi-grade tuna, No. 1 sushi grade tuna is what you’re getting.”

In fact, True World made its name selling top-quality fish to sushi restaurants, which are notorious for turning back product they’re not satisfied with. And if it’s good enough for the Japanese, the fish is good enough for Passalacqua, who makes a point of specifying such high-end product as line-caught tuna and swordfish, wild or farm-raised Scottish salmon, fresh coldwater calamari (which he insists stays more tender than squid caught in warmer waters) and dry, dayboat U-10 scallops.

“Those scallops probably cost me four bucks a pound more, but they’re worth every penny,” says the chef. “Customers have told me that they’ve had scallops before and didn’t get what the big deal was, but then they tried our scallops and loved them. I live for that.”

Then, too, the products are consistent. “Something like mussels can be very hit or miss,” Passalacqua says, but not the fresh PEIs he buys. “They’re always good, and that means my customers get a taste for them. Maybe they won’t feel like cooking, and they’ll say ‘Let’s go to Dimaio’s for mussels.’”

He also appreciates the way the catch is delivered: in individually numbered bags, with the name of the restaurant and the contents printed on each bag, encased in another bag that’s filled with ice.

“That way, it’s kept cold but is never in direct contact with the ice,” says Passalacqua. “Numbering the bags also makes it much easier to check in each order.”

Seafood specialties on the regular menu include fried calamari, mussels marinara, linguini with clam sauce, fettuccine Lucollos (with shrimp, scallops, plum tomatoes and a touch of cream) and Neptune (with scallops, shrimp and lump crabmeat in a creamy seafood sauce), blackened tuna, Salmon Vodka Sauce, and Tilapia Sicilian (with pine nuts, raisins, plum tomatoes and bread crumbs).

But the real seafood story at Dimaio’s is specials.

“We have three or four specials a night — sometimes up to six — and most of them are seafood,” says Passalacqua. With specials accounting for up to 45 percent of sales on any given night, that puts seafood in the No. 1 sales-mix spot among entrées, pasta dishes and
appetizers.

Obviously, it takes more work to focus on specials, including work in the kitchen and on the part of the dining room staff. During pre-shift meetings, Passalacqua prepares several orders of each nightly special for the dining room shift, so they can taste each one as he gives the drill on what the item is, how it’s prepared and what it means within the context of the Italian menu.

Often, there are specials that interpret staple menu items like mussels or salmon in a different way, such as an appetizer of mussels steamed with shallots and champagne, finished with a chiffonade of fresh mint. But Passalacqua also experiments freely with more unusual species, including bluefish, giant prawns, snapper, softshell crab and even imported species like mahimahi and monchong from Hawaii and Lake Victoria perch from Africa.

Over the years, he’s even been able to get people to try rare tuna, whiting, whole head-on snapper and octopus, which he prepares in a variety of ways.

One thing he won’t do, however, is buy seafood that he believes is in jeopardy. “If we keep doing that, what is there going to be left for us to eat?” he asks. “Just because people want to eat it doesn’t mean I’ll buy it.”

That means there was no swordfish three or four years ago, no Chilean sea bass today. And he investigates sources of reliable-quality farm-raised fish — “clean” fish that have been raised as naturally as possible.

In an effort to support locally caught species, Passalacqua has been working directly with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, which also overseas seafood, to brainstorm ideas and solutions.

“It would be great if we could have a market like Pike’s Place or the Union Square farmer’s market, where local providers would have an outlet for their products and customers could get a better idea where their food is coming from,” he says.
 

 December 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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