By LINDA GIUCA, Special To The Courant
The Hartford Courant
August 29, 2013
Brothers Dino and Salvatore Cialfi have run restaurants on both sides of the Atlantic. As children, they learned to appreciate regional Italian cooking, particularly Roman dishes, in their mother's kitchen. As young adults, they cooked alongside their relatives at their restaurant in Rome.
Later on, when her sons and daughters Tina and Rosa built a thriving family business as owners of Peppercorn's Grill in Hartford and Piccolo Arancio in Farmington, Carmela Cialfi made the pasta for the restaurants, wowing guests with her ravioli as though they were eating in her own kitchen.
"She influenced us every single day," says Dino of his mother who passed away in 2012. "Everyone loves to hear about her and what she taught us."
For Dino and Sal, the chance to hone their culinary skills in their ancestral land presented itself when Dino attended college in Italy in the late '70s. Their father's family, who hailed from the Abruzzo region near Rome, moved to the Eternal City where they ran a restaurant. The brothers worked with their relatives until they decided to open their own place.
"Sal and I bought our own restaurant in 1984 with my family's help," says Dino. The two brothers named the restaurant Piccolo Arancia - "little orange" – and operated it, near the Trevi Fountain in Rome, for about five years. But they longed for their family in the States.
"Though we learned a lot and were with family [in Rome], there was no way to transport our whole family there," he says. Dino and Sal turned over the restaurant to their cousins and returned to Connecticut. In 1989, they bought Peppercorn's Grill on 357 Main St., in Hartford.
Twenty-four years later, the Cialfis own two well-regarded restaurants. Dino can be found at Peppercorn's, while Sal is ensconced in the Piccolo Arancio kitchen, which opened in 1994. Over the years, Peppercorn's menu has reflected "so many regions and so many fusions," Dino says, but to mark the restaurant's 24th anniversary, he is returning to his roots with a prix fixe ($29) menu of Roman specialties that runs through September. Dino plans to offer more Roman dishes after the special is over.
"We're doing authentic dishes like fried artichokes – carciofo alla giudea from the city's famous Roman Jewish cuisine – and deep-fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with peppery mozzarella," he says. "All of the deep-fried dishes originated in the Jewish ghetto."
The Roman pasta dishes on the menu are "simple but tasty," Dino says. The menu offers a tasting of two pastas: tonnarelli cacao e pepe and rigatoni all'amatriciana. The tonnarelli is made with "a good amount of cheese and pepper and a hint of anchovy," he says. "It tastes incredible, and it's creamy because the oil and cheese mix together." The rigatoni is tossed with crispy pancetta, caramelized onions, tomato and grated pecorino romano. "In Rome, chefs use pecorino rather than parmigiana cheese because it's local," Dino says, adding that the farm-to-chef movement that has gained momentum in the U.S. is how Italian chefs have always cooked.
The menu offers a choice of three entrees. The chicken "alla Diavola," which Dino says is very popular in Rome, is a pungent dish of pan-seared chicken in a sauce with fresh herbs, hot chilies and lemon. Slow cooking gives the veal dish a naturally blended sauce of red peppers, caramelized onions, potatoes and San Marzano tomatoes, while a gnocchi entrée is baked with cheese and wild mushrooms.
The family enjoys educating their customers and tempting them with dishes they have not tried before, Dino says. He also is looking forward to special events this fall, including an October wine dinner and the annual Cliquot champagne gala in early December. One newer aspect of the restaurant that the Cialfis plan to develop is the banquet room that seats about 90 guests. The room can accommodate dinner meetings, celebratory parties, rehearsal dinners or small wedding receptions.
While Dino and his siblings are already thinking about how to celebrate Peppercorn's 25th anniversary next year, they hope that guests will take advantage of the prix fixe menu to experience Roman cuisine. The four-course menu costs $29, excluding tax and tip, and will be served through September. For information, call 860-547-1714.
Update at Tuscany Grill
Tuscany Grill in Middletown has a new look. The restaurant re-opened Aug. 2 after extensive renovations. Owners and sisters-in-law Brenda and Lynne Reilly gave the Middletown landmark, which opened in 1984, a facelift with new paint, equipment, furniture and flooring. The big oval bar, a gathering place for regulars, was refinished.
The Reilly women are the driving force behind Tuscany Grill, but there are other women involved in the operation. Ruth Shea and Meghan Wrinn are the general managers, while a fourth generation of family – daughters and nieces Erin, Kelly, Maeve and Clare Reilly – also work in the business. "Tuscany Grill and Baci Grill are run on Girl Power," the owners say. Baci Grill is the sister restaurant in Cromwell.
The Reilly women raised their families and developed their business with Brenda's brother and Lynne's husband, chef and restaurateur Tim Reilly. In 2009, he lost a five-year battle with cancer, but the women red-dedicated themselves to the family business.
Tuscany Grill is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 3 to 9 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, visit http://www.tuscany-grill.com or call 860-346-7096.
>>Some of Connecticut's best chefs will gather to stir the pot for charity at the No Kid Hungry Dinner Sept. 30 at Elm Restaurant in New Canaan. Elm's chef/owner Brian Lewis has invited fellow chefs Carey Savona of Heirloom in New Haven and Geoff Lazlo of The Whelk in Westport and sommelier Jeff Barbour of New Canaan Wine Merchants to collaborate on the multi-course menu. An auction will offer guests the chance to bid on unique culinary, travel and lifestyle items. The evening begins at 6 p.m. with a reception followed by dinner at 7 p.m. Proceeds will benefit Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign. Reservations are $200 per person. Visit ce.strength.org/events/no-kid-hungry-dinner-new-canaan.
>>The Taste of the Valley will take place Sept. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Deep River Historical Society, 245 Main St., Deep River. Restaurants include Brushmill by the Waterfall, Gabrielle's, La Vita Gustosa, Trapiche, Riverhouse at Goodspeed Station and the Ivory. Tickets are $35, and proceeds will benefit Tri-Town Youth Services covering Deep River, Essex and Chester. For information, call 860-526-3600.
>>Super Cellar Warehouse Liquors, 332 W. Main St., Avon, will host a Wine Education Seminar: "Wine Tour of Italy" with guest speaker Mike Petrizzo - Northeast Regional manager of Vias Imports on Wednesday, Sept. 11, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Fee is $25 and includes 2 bottles of wine. Information: 860-678-9777 and ctwine.net.
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