The latest exciting addition to the North Fork is Barba Bianca, named for the white beards of fishermen and maybe the white beard of its chef, Frank DeCarlo. He’s a New Jersey native who’s famously spent his life in kitchens, starting out as a dishwasher at 14. Peasant and Bacaro, his very successful city restaurants, have somehow survived in an era of insane rents thanks to their dedication to classic Italian cooking, something he studied closely while living and cooking in the country for years. The former, which opened in 1999, offers pizzas, pastas and more, with a focus on the wood-fired; the latter is a bit brighter, the place to go for aperitivos, spritzes and wines. His first East End venture came as a surprise to many in the city, but once you find out that his wife of almost twenty years is from Shirley, it all makes sense.
At the 120-seat Barba Bianca, you can expect a lot of seafood, including “junk” fish, as well as local produce sourced exclusively from Southold’s The Farm Beyond. DeCarlo will even be fishing some of the proteins right off the restaurant’s dock itself. It all adds up to an unmissable experience, so make sure to get there before they close down for the colder seasons.
We talked to the chef about what drew him out of the city and what Long Islanders can expect to find on their plates.
Edible East End: How often were you out on the East End before you decided to open the restaurant?
Frank DeCarlo: It’s just about twenty years. Prior to that, I was not exposed to the North Fork or Long Island. I was born in New Jersey, so my experience of beach life was that you go down the shore, to Seaside. It’s a completely different thing than out here. Out here, it’s just incredible. I was so blown away the first time I came out here and saw the farmland just rolling up to the water. It’s another experience.
We bought a house on Shelter Island around fifteen years ago, so I was familiar with Greenport and the drive through the North Fork. Prior to buying the house, we’d visit the South Fork, and that’s a world of difference, too—the North Fork compared to the South. The farmlands are similar, but the South Fork is too much, the traffic. I don’t know how people can deal with that. I’m hoping that the North Fork doesn’t turn into it at some point.
EEE: So that certainly informed your decision to open in Greenport. What else about the town did you think would be especially conducive to what you wanted to do?
FDC: I like the North Fork because it’s blue collar. It seems like it’s still real there; it’s not the big mansions, the big oversize homes everywhere. How big of a house do you really need? It gets to a point where it’s almost absurd. You don’t see much of that. I grew up blue collar. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth, for sure.
I like the farmers. I like the fishermen. We’re all friends out here, and I like it like that. I just like things that are real, and for that reason, I just love it. I feel so at home out here.
EEE: Do you feel that you’re cooking for different palates than you’ve become accustomed to in the city?
FDC: A lot of the people, they’ve read or they’ve seen that I’m coming from Peasant. We’re new; we’re just open a few weeks. Most of the people, who I don’t know, they say: Oh, I know Peasant restaurant. It’s amazing how many people know Peasant; I guess because it’s been there going on eighteen years now. I’m just meeting a lot of new people I haven’t met who said they’ve been there at some point. It’s connected that way.
At the same time, there are some people that I’m meeting out here who I’m inviting to the restaurant, who live out here and don’t know what Peasant is. They’re enjoying it because every vegetable I’m using is right out of the ground. All of the fish—it’s not a big variety on the menu, because there’s only the local little necks or top necks or skate or eels or bluefish or black sea bass or the porgy. I’m keeping it very limited to just what’s in the water; this way, I’m using the fishermen here.
We’re all doing this together: the farmers, the fishermen. I have my guy who gets me conk. I have the guy who gets me my eel. I have Charlie at Southold Fish Market, who gets the most incredible fish. What a great find he was. This is the brilliance, finding the people here. Finding the guy who fishes for the conk—and there’s many of them—some of these guys are generation conk fishermen. And the people who get the scallops. It’s all kind of individualized, and I find it fascinating and I really like it.
I spent a lot of time in Italy—not like most of the chefs who cook Italian food, most of them visit there and eat around. I was working, living, traveling for years, long before I even opened Peasant, and you find the same experiences: the guys who are generational, just making prosciutto or a type of sausage or pasta. You see that here; it’s the same thing—family businesses that are handed down through the generations. We may be seeing the last of all this because of cost of living and property and money—capitalism, pretty much. In Italy, you own property, you own it for life. The taxes aren’t as crazy as they are here. It makes it a lot easier to keep practices going through generations. Here, it’s a lot harder.
EEE: Are there any specific farms from which you’re sourcing vegetables?
FDC: Right now I’m only using one farm, The Farm Beyond. It’s in Southold. These guys, they’re a couple with children, and they’re just amazing. They’ve studied farming here. They’ve been in Europe farming for quite a few years. The quality of what they’re doing is unbelievable, and the dedication to what they’re doing and the diversity of what they’re growing—it’s enough for me. I don’t need four or five different farmers. They have enough land and they’re growing enough things.
It’s not a very big menu that I’m doing, but that’s because I somehow stumbled upon these people and I don’t have time for anything else. My day is getting up at eight in the morning and going to their farm first, then it’s on to other things: buying the fish, going different places. We’re baking our bread in the restaurant right now. It’s crazy. We’re just doing five dinners, but it’s total consumption. We’re not getting out of the kitchen until two in the morning, then you get a few hours sleep and it’s starting all over again.
EEE: Have there been any unique challenges to opening on the East End versus opening in the city?
FDC: Yes, and I’m so glad you said that. It’s impossible to find people to work out here. I thought, when we started construction, Oh, this is gonna be great. We’re gonna have lots of people come looking for work. It’s gonna be fantastic. Hopefully we’ll get a bunch of local kids and they’ll all be into it.
Well, that is so far from the case. And I know this, because other friends of mine who are chefs out here, have been telling me for years—because I’ve been dreaming about how cool it would be to find a space, and live out here, and have a restaurant. How could that be? People must want to work? And because of television and the fascination with the culinary thing, with the Food Network and all the documentaries about the people cooking—it’s like a big fad for the last fifteen years or so. I thought there must be plenty of people interested. It was not the case. I can’t find anybody.
I had a guy in a few weeks ago with an impressive résumé, and he was like a deer in headlights. I said, “Maybe you can expedite. It’s very easy to expedite.” This guy was completely lost. It turns out he was completely full of shit. He just did one of those things where you lie your way into a job and hopefully you can prove yourself. I’ve done that myself, and you better figure it out fast. I was able to figure it out very quickly. This guy was not.
So what we’ve had to do is rent a house in Greenport and import people. It sucks to have to do that because renting a house in Greenport is very expensive, but there’s no other way around it. I wish people were really interested. I pay well and I like having young people. I don’t care if you’ve ever worked anywhere before, because what you’re doing is something different from what anyone’s done before. I don’t care if there’s any experience there. I just want someone with an interest. That kind of sucks a little bit. Now it’s really me and another guy in the kitchen; it’s just the two of us and a third guy who’s doing cold, so we’re very limited with how many people we can do a night, which is unfortunate; it is what is and we’re dealing with it. But it’s still beautiful out here! It’s heaven out here.