“Ho, ho, ho” is to Santa Claus as “wow, pow, ciao” is to Luigi Petrone, owner of Huntington’s Tutto Pazzo.
It means a dish is over the top, jammed with goodness, maybe even excess, like a Sunday sauce simmering with filet mignon braciole stuffed with pignole nuts and raisins; linguine lobster carbonara; an amaretto mousse bomb or a mini wedding cake made with three layers of brownie and shellacked in more chocolate for dessert. And at Tutto Pazzo, which is Italian for “Totally Crazy,” they pack a lot of wow, pow, ciao per square inch.
Petrone’s customers include a lot of Italian-American families. (A whopping one in four Long Islanders claims Italian ancestry.) The older generation wants its pasta like their nonna’s (grandma’s) in Brooklyn; others want to try something new. So in the grand tradition of Italian-American adaptability, Petrone, along with his brother, Joseph, has found a way to inject wow, pow, ciao into traditional ristorante fare, while also acting as a bridge to modern Italian cooking as you might find it in contemporary Rome, Florence or Milan.
Italian-American cuisine became pretty much the opposite of what it had been for most immigrants; it became a cuisine of abundance: bigger portions, more meat.
You can’t understate the importance of Italian food to the island. There’s a ristorante and a pizzeria in every town, sometimes all in one and often more than one. We serve pizza pies sliced into 16ths for little hands at birthday parties. Italian bakeries sell loaves of Italian bread and plates of almond-flavored cookies for graduation parties and christenings. And where would we be without rainbow cookies and cannolis? Lasagne and sausage and peppers in massive aluminum trays are the staple of celebration buffets. When we want tastes-like-homemade but don’t feel like cooking, we run to the Italian supermarket for chicken cutlets, Parmesan or Francese, with a nice salad of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and balsamic vinegar. In short, Long Island runs on Italian food.
Or rather, we run on Italian-American food. Many of the dishes we hold dear are American adaptations, a product of old-world tradition meeting new-world abundance.
To understand this better, I rang up my friend and expert on Italian eats, Domenica Marchetti, author of numerous Italian cookbooks, including most recently, Preserving Italy: Recipes for Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions.
The New York–born daughter of an Italian mother and Italian-American father, Domenica says, “The food of Italian immigrants evolved from mostly southern Italian cucina povera (poor man’s cuisine) into something entirely its own. Ingredients that were considered luxuries back home, especially meat, were less expensive here. As families prospered, they were able to afford to put more of these foods on the table. And so Italian-American cuisine became pretty much the opposite of what it had been for most immigrants; it became a cuisine of abundance: bigger portions, more meat.” Or as Luigi Petrone says, “Wow, pow, ciao.”
So as the first waves of Italian immigration to the northeastern United States began in the late 1800s, driven by poverty and lack of opportunity back home, Italian enclaves began to develop on Long Island. Salvatore J. Lagumina says in his book Long Island Italian Americans: History, Heritage & Tradition they bypassed New York City in order to “own the soil in which to build their homes, to raise their families and to grow the familiar fig trees and other citrus fruits and vegetables.” They took jobs in sand mining, horticulture and the expanding Long Island Rail Road. The work was often brutal and poorly paid, but this resilient people stuck it out and created communities in places like Westbury, Port Washington, Patchogue and Copiague (then Marconiville), anchored by mutual aid societies, churches and, of course, Italian groceries.
The Petrones’ experience mirrors that of many Long Islanders. Their parents immigrated from Calabria to Flushing in the ’50s. Their grandmother, Teresina Scalzo, came from Italy to run the household, do the cooking and raise vegetables in the little yard. You can see her picture all over Tutto Pazzo. “She cooked old-fashioned dishes,” Luigi Petrone says. “She only made about 10 dishes, but they were off the hook.” For special occasions she made grispedde, a Calabrian cross between a donut and a zeppole. “I remember how she would lay them on the bedsheets to watch them rise,” he adds.
There wasn’t a lot of money and both boys started working as soon as they could in restaurants owned by extended family on Long Island and even as far as San Francisco. In 1991, they decided to join forces and open Tutto Pazzo together.
Today it is a spacious establishment with several dining areas including an outdoor patio that seats 300. After an electrical fire in 2005 they completely rebuilt and followed a Tuscan golden palette with elegant seating, a large stone fireplace, and hand-painted murals on the walls evoking Florentine themes.
The menu is massive. It celebrates the classics of Italian-American food—fresh mozzarella, fresh pasta made daily, fried calamari, veal Parm, Bolognese sauce—but jazzes up the ingredients. The chicken marsala includes shiitake mushrooms; the shrimp in the scampi is grilled; some dishes are seasoned with gold-plated sea salt. “I have customers who want things they remember,” says Luigi. “But for today’s younger generation you have to make it interesting. I went to Italy two years ago and visited the top 10 restaurants. Deconstructing dishes is so strong now, so with the specials we do that.”
On Sundays the restaurant serves family-style specials that reflect the Sunday tradition of Italian families dropping everything to go to la mamma’s house for massive Sunday sauce. Some of the herbs and vegetables are picked from the garden out the back, just like the Petrone’s grandmother’s garden. But if you want something more modern, you can order a deconstructed pasta dish in which the pasta is on top of the light sauce, the cheese and fillings are on the side, everything assembled in a haute-cuisine-meets-la nonna-meets-MoMA style.
What is common to everything—the food and the owner—is abundance. Luigi Petrone is an expansive, enthusiastic guy who compulsively shares his food and personality on social media, posting pictures of elaborate dishes and insane desserts several times a day; he shares videos of the making of his dishes, and even an every Friday sing-along video of himself singing and dancing to his favorite tunes. A dedicated amateur poker player, he competes in the World Series of Poker and is pretty well rated. But that doesn’t stop him from being a people person; he might stop at a table and hand-feed someone’s husband, show a friend’s kid how to make fresh pasta, tell stories about his travels or narrate every historical picture in the joint. Luigi is fast talking, friendly and loads of fun, fiercely proud of his heritage but unafraid to adapt and make this country his own. He and his restaurant reflect the story of so many Italian Long Islanders and their contributions to the overall culture that make all our lives here more delicious. Wow, pow, ciao!