A 25-year old Hamptons institution
It’s one thing for a Hamptons restaurant to draw crowds during the height of the summer season. But the 25-year-old Nick & Toni’s is a veritable institution year round, attracting both local, loyal clientele, and a steady stream of celebrities as varied as Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger, Steven Spielberg and Martha Stewart. “We have been always been lucky to be financially able to stay open,” says Executive Chef Joe Realmuto, who’s worked at the rustic Italian restaurant for nearly 20 years now. “The party scene leaves and the people who come to Nick & Toni’s are there for the food and service. It’s great to be open in the “off-season” because the Hamptons are not as busy, and you can usually get a table. Usually!”
Not that the perennially packed eatery is resting on its laurels. Chef Realmuto has made a consistent effort to keep current and creative with dishes, like Beet Agnolotti with Pecorino Romano and Poppy Seeds, and Wood Roasted Striped Bass with Seared Artichokes, Lemons and Capers. That commitment to seasonality was buoyed even further when the restaurant expanded its vegetable garden five years ago. It’s now a one-acre plot that supplies the kitchen with squash blossoms, radishes, watermelon, heirloom tomatoes and more.
Nick & Toni’s After…
While the menu may have changed over the years, the well-worn interior was in need of a serious facelift, which is why, in honor of their 25th anniversary, Nick & Toni’s recently underwent a gut renovation and is back, just in time for summer with a whole new look and a shiny new bar (not to worry, the signature, mosaic tiled woodburning oven is still intact). “We were able to build a new, dedicated kitchen for our pastry chef as well, who has had to make the desserts for all five of our restaurants out of one shared space,” Realmuto adds. We also spoke with the chef about why he prefers the Hamptons to Manhattan, which celebrity he’s always most excited to serve, and what he thinks has kept Nick & Toni’s going strong after all these years.
What originally brought you to Nick & Toni’s in 1994?
I decided to move out here after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, and enjoy the summer Hamptons life before settling in in NYC. I was speaking with a good friend at school, Adam Perry Lang, who said if I was going to the Hamptons I needed to work at Nick & Toni’s. His parents had a house out here and he loved the food there. Here I am 20 years later!
While chefs have come and gone, why have you decided to stay on for almost 20 years?
I just fell in love with products we have available out here, and how civilized restaurant life is compared to a big city. Also, I was involved with people that were really passionate about what they do. Owner Jeff Salaway was super passionate about farm-to-table food 25 years ago. And Paul DelFavero, who was my chef at the time, is still one of the most food passionate chefs I have ever been around. When I saw this passion from them and realized I was surrounded by all these great products, I was hooked.
What do you consider to be the real “signature dishes” at Nick & Toni’s?
Probably for me it is the Wood Roasted Whole Fish. We are currently using a Striped Bass that is harvested in Gardiners Bay. Over the years we have roasted everything from Black Sea Bass, Bronzino, Dourade and Black Fish, but my favorite is the Bass. We change up the garnishes each season as well. I just love the flavor from the wood oven, and the flavor you get from cooking it whole. This is not something people can do at home either!
What are some of the immediate changes or additions you made to the menu when you first became the chef?
Wow, you are going back some time! Nothing really sticks out, as our menus change as products come into season. Just because it is summer in July doesn’t mean you will see tomatoes on our menu. We will wait until August when they are local and in their prime.
Nick & Toni’s is known as a real power restaurant with an endless roster of celebrity customers. Who have you been most excited to meet and cook for?
Being a Queens, NY native, I have to say Robert De Niro. I really love all of his movies.
Are there any “off-menu” items that you have to be in the know to order? If so, can you let us in on them?
Not really. What you see is what you get, although we are very accommodating to peoples requests. One year we took our Tartufo dessert off the menu… but since we didn’t want to cause a riot, kept it in the back for whenever someone asked. We sold more that year than ever! I think word got around and people started to order it just because it was not on the menu.
Are you involved in any way with the two Nick & Toni’s outposts in Manhattan?
I am the Executive Chef for all our restaurants; Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton, Nick & Toni’s Café in NYC, La Fondita, Rowdy Hall and TownLine BBQ, so I am very involved. I try to get to the city as often as possible to change the menu and watch what is going on with the food and service. I really enjoy going to the Café. It is a completely different restaurant then East Hampton.
Even before the big relaunch, what are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen the restaurant and menu go through over the years?
Believe it or not, although we’ve always tried to reinvent ourselves over the last 25 years, we have been able to do it in a way that is subtle, to keep us up with the times and still stay consistent. I think that’s the key to us being around for 25 years! As I had mentioned earlier, we are always writing new menus, so from a food standpoint it is ever-changing.
How specifically has the restaurant and menu been updated and revitalized for the 25th anniversary?
We did a complete gut renovation to the dining room, which was huge for us. It was time to update the look and feel of the restaurant and I think we were successful. As far as the menu, the end of our renovations luckily coincided with spring, which is always a great time of the year for food. But it’s been a month since then, and we’ve already changed our menu!
Are you planning any big launch parties to celebrate? If so, what specials will you be offering?
We have not decided what to do for our anniversary, but we would like to use it to give back to the community. We will keep you posted!
What do you think has kept Nick & Toni’s going strong all these years? What has made it such an iconic restaurant?
I think it is truly the consistency of the food and service, and making people feel at home when they dine with us. Also, the fact that we try not to believe all the press and take ourselves for granted. We have been very fortunate to have some employees that have been with us for a very long time in both the front and back of the house, which has helped us deliver an honest and delicious experience each and every visit.