It would be wrong to label Osteria Leana an Italian restaurant. According to Peter Van Der Mije, the restaurant’s chef and owner, it would be wrong to label any restaurant an ‘Italian restaurant’.
“I think there’s a misunderstanding in grouping all Italian food together. Italian food is a regional food.” And so what region does his restaurant specialize in? “We’re Oyster Bay Italian.”
Osteria Leana opened in 2016, transforming what was once a brewery into a 42-seat restaurant. Van Der Mije didn’t so much pick Oyster Bay as it picked him. “I came in for a beer when it was a brewery and they had a for rent sign up.” The space wasn’t advertised, Van Der Mije assumed the owners of Oyster Bay Brewing company were expecting another brewery to take over the lease. After finishing his beer, he walked through the town and really enjoyed the atmosphere. “Just walking around, it seemed like a unique opportunity. Huntington already had a strong restaurant scene, Roslyn has one too.” He was originally looking to join the scenes in either of these towns, but nothing in his budget fit what he wanted: small, local, and community based.
Although his focus is on small and local, Van Der Mije brings a breadth of experience from different states and restaurants to his line. “[A restaurant] is a culmination of your experiences in life that define how you want to present yourself.” From his time as Jean Georges, he brings texture; from Aquavit, it was Marcus Samuelsson’s exceptional plating technique that stuck with him. But it was Dan Kluger that sparked Van Der Mije’s passion for locality and seasonality. “Long Island has such great wine, great produce. There’s no reason for Long Island not to have great restaurants. There’s a bounty of great product here.”
But Oyster Bay is not Italy. So how did a chef from Florida decide his focus would be on Italian cuisine? The answer lies, as it does with most people of Italian descent, with his grandmother Leana, after whom his restaurant is named. “What she taught me and how she encouraged me to cook was why I wanted to do Italian.” Leana was Sicilian, but the menu at her namesake restaurant is not.
“I always think, if Italians were here and they occupied Oyster Bay, they would obviously bring some stuff with them, but they would use what we have around us here.” As soon as Van Der Mije uttered this sentence, I found myself back in Augusta, Sicily, where my own family was rooted for generations. The town is small, sparsely populated with fisherman and a single hotel bearing my surname. It takes ten minutes to walk through the town, 20 if you slow your gait to a Sicilian pace. The food stalls lining the street sell freshly caught—and fried—seafood. The arancini have peas and meat, but no raisins, which you’ll find in cities like Palermo, given its proximity to North Africa. Even on an island less than 10,000 square-miles, each town tweaks traditional dishes, even slightly, to make it their own. I’m reminded of Oyster Bay as I navigate the winding streets, of its smallness and its heart.
Back in Oyster Bay, this is the playbook Van Der Mije uses when creating dishes for Osteria Leana. While most of his guests know what gnocchi and beets taste like on their own, the combination of the two is foreign. “People almost always tie flavor to texture; so taking a bite of beet gnocchi is surprising because you’re expecting the texture of a beet.” Adjusting expectations of his customers is part of the fun for the chef and his team. There have been guests who assumed Italian meant chicken parmigiana and not seeing it on the menu led them to walk out. But Van Der Mije has trained his team to work with guests in approaching the menu. “We take baby steps; whether it’s the polenta tots or the burrata, it’s all in how you describe it. We relate unfamiliar dishes to something a guest may be more accustomed to.” His team also needs to be comfortable answering the most common question in all seasonal restaurants: why aren’t their tomatoes on the menu in December?
Van Der Mije is committed to the restaurant’s hyper-local, community driven mission—but he doesn’t sacrifice quality in doing so. “Any seasonal product we can get our hands on, from the likes of Youngs and Rottkamp Farms and Flowers & Sons seafood, we’re usually using it because it’s good. We want to be part of the community and I think that’s always how you’re going to have a foundation for success.”
Community is a word that comes up a lot with Van Der Mije. He probably used it several dozen times in our interview, not as a ploy but a real yearning to be part of something. Prior to opening Osteria Leana, he was a private chef, alone in a kitchen for hours. Opening a restaurant became more than making good food; it took Van Der Mije out of isolation. “When I walk down the street, I know all the people at Nobman’s [Hardware] and Harborside Deli and Southdown Coffee, because I’m there every day—and that’s kind of cool.”
And so it turns out that Van Der Mije is the Italian he often imagined, the one who came and occupied some space in Oyster Bay, using what he brought with him while focusing on what the town offered. And in so doing, he created a new region for Italian cuisine, over 4,000 miles away from the country, and with that, a new community.