It’s been nine years since chef Ryan DePersio and his family opened Fascino, the celebrated contemporary-Italian restaurant widely considered one of the best in the state. Far from resting on their laurels, the DePersios expanded, opening the more casual Bar Cara in Bloomfield in 2010. Ryan and brother Anthony are consultants for the new Nico Kitchen + Bar at NJPAC in Newark, where Ryan is executive chef. For all that, says Ryan, “Fascino is still our baby. It’s 100 percent what we originally created.”
That baby requires a lot of TLC from the family: Ryan is in the kitchen three or four nights a week, along with his mother, Cynthia, the pastry chef, whose desserts are highlights of Fascino meals. Older brother Anthony manages Fascino and Bar Cara, while father Anthony greets Fascino customers and hobnobs with regulars a few evenings a week.
You’d think by week’s end they would have their fill of family togetherness. But no, the DePersios treasure their Sunday family dinner. (It’s why Fascino is closed Sundays.) Boisterous and filled with glorious Italian food (what, you expected cucumber finger sandwiches?), dinner commences virtually every Sunday of the year at about 2 pm, after hours of loving prep in Cynthia’s kitchen.
Mother and son manage not to trip over each other as they cook side-by-side. “It’s not a grand kitchen,” admits Cynthia, “but we’ve been cooking in it for years.” Cynthia started her career as a caterer when her children were toddlers, and Ryan credits her with sparking his love of cooking. Indeed, for all his plaudits and TV appearances on Today and other shows, Ryan defers to his mother when they cook at home. Or perhaps she doesn’t give him much choice. “Notice, I still get told what to do by my mom,” he points out.
Compensating for the kitchen’s modest size, Cynthia has enhanced its functionality over the years. She had the sink moved to a corner so the counter could be expanded to provide more room for prep. Recently she had all the counters upgraded to Lapidus granite—the cool, polished stone provides an ideal surface for rolling out pastry. She also likes the granite’s dramatic irregular pattern. “It looks like artwork,” she says. One thing she didn’t change is the dual-fuel oven/cooktop. “I like the control of gas on top, with an electric oven,” Cynthia says. She also likes the convenient warming drawer on the bottom. The flooring is a vinyl that resembles stone. “It’s very easy on the legs and the feet,” she says.
Ryan, on the other hand, loves gadgets. One of his favorites is his Cuisinart pasta maker. He makes dough the night before and keeps it frozen until just before Sunday dinner, then cranks out super-fresh rigatoni. He’s also keen on his Rondeau Dutch oven—a hefty pot with a heavy bottom and sturdy handles. “It’s great for meatballs,” he says.
Mother and son agree that the kitchen table is perfect for serving appetizers. “It’s where all my grandkids hang out,” says Cynthia. And they concur that the best thing about the kitchen, to borrow the real estate adage, is location, location, location. The kitchen is flanked by the family room on one side and the dining room on the other.
“This is always the place to be,” says Ryan. “It’s a great hangout. It just works for entertaining.”
It’s no stretch to say that Nicholas Harary has always sought the comfort of restaurants. During a time of family turmoil when he was young, he used to hang out at a pizzeria in his neighborhood. One day the owner offered him a job busing tables and sweeping floors. He was 12. The job helped him support his family. After three years, he worked his way up to pizza maker and began to dream of becoming a chef.
Incredibly studious, Harary emerged from the Culinary Institute of America at 19, one of the youngest graduates ever. At 23, after learning about wine while working at a restaurant in San Diego, he became the youngest head sommelier at the renowned restaurant Jean-Georges in Manhattan. Meanwhile, he had met and married Melissa, another hard worker starting out in the restaurant business. They didn’t just dream of opening their own place. They planned it, step by step. Finally, 12 years ago, they pooled their savings and went into hock to convert a run-down Mexican eatery on Route 35 in Red Bank into Restaurant Nicholas. Ever since, it has consistently been rated one of the top restaurants in New Jersey. The couple hardly takes a break—except for time with Nicholas, 5, and Juliana, 4.
Given their long march to success, it figures that home—and the kitchen, especially—is their sanctuary. They bought their Atlantic Highlands house three years ago from a builder who had outfitted it with custom cabinetry, two dishwashers, three ovens, and double Vikings (a refrigerator and a freezer). “It’s pretty insane,” says Nicholas. “People think you need all these expensive things, but really, a refrigerator is a refrigerator. A stove is a stove. We have three ovens and I’m not sure why.”
Nicholas gets off on the little things. “For me,” he says, “it’s all about the gadgets.” One of his favorites is the Vita-Prep, a high-speed blender he uses to make everything from his morning after-run protein shake to vegetable purées for sauces. “We made all the kids’ baby food from the Vita-Prep,” he says. The waffle maker also gets a workout (“The kids love waffles for breakfast”), as does the heavy-duty meat slicer (“What’s better than freshly carved lunch meats?”). Nicholas dotes on his cast-iron pots and his sharp knives—so sharp he secrets them in the dining room, for his use only. “They’re like razor blades,” he says.
Despite the kitchen’s elegance, Nicholas and Melissa are casual about home cooking. “The kids sit in the middle of the counter with their legs crossed and watch us cook,” says Nicholas. There’s very little in the giant Viking refrigerator. “We go to the store every day,” he says. “Not because we think it’s cute, but because it’s just what we do.” So fresh is their food that the giant walk-in pantry is piled with rolls of gift wrap, not canned or boxed food. “We eat all fresh,” Nicholas says.
Similarly, on rare occasions when the Hararys entertain, it’s not Restaurant Nicholas style. “I don’t want to cook things at home that I cook at the restaurant,” he says. “We’ll do barbecue, or a Greek night, or Italian.” The couple is building a brick oven on the back patio for making pizza, roasting meat and baking bread.
Melissa is content to manage everything in the house and restaurant except the food. “I let Nicholas do the cooking,” she says. “I tried when we were first married, but he made it clear that this is what he does.”
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