Hard work and the talent to satisfy a demanding, often fickle public are as essential to success in the kitchen as they are on stage. How fitting then, that Ryan DePersio, one of the brightest stars on the local gastronomy scene, should kick off Act Three of his career by headlining the new restaurant at the NJPAC in Newark.
The Nutley native first opened Fascino, an Italian BYO, to wide acclaim in Montclair in 2003, with his mother Cynthia serving as pastry chef, father Anthony as business manager, and brother Anthony as general manager. As an encore, the DePersios launched Bar Cara—christened with the initials of their first names—a trendy, more casual Bloomfield eatery, in 2010. But now the family’s top chef has trained his culinary spotlight on Nico Kitchen + Bar—named for his six-year-old son, Nicholas—which opened February 21 in the space formerly occupied by the Theater Square Grill (www.nicokitchenbar.com).
“Ryan has built such a great name for himself. He has such a great following,” said David Wood, senior vice president of marketing for Culinaire, the Dallas-based hospitality firm hired by the 15-year-old performing arts center to revamp its restaurant operations. Looking to build local support for the eatery by tapping a Jersey boy for the top-toque job, Culinaire executives approached DePersio, a graduate of the New York Restaurant School who had worked with David Bouley, Bill Telepan, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York, as well as at La Brasserie in Paris, the Michelin-starred Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, and Café Panache in Ramsey, to implement a chef-driven approach. The overture offered him “another extension of me being able to show what I have,” said DePersio . “I want to be famous for my cooking, and the only way to do that is to grow.”
Although DePersio’s brother helped craft the restaurant’s wine list, Nico is in many ways the younger DePersio’s breakout role. But he knows it’s no solo performance. “I have an amazing staff,” he said. Scott Buonomo, the restaurant’s general manager, oversees the bar program, which now includes on-tap artisanal beers; Adam Rose, formerly of Bin 14 in Hoboken, is chef de cuisine; and desserts remain the domain of pastry chef Binicio Salas, retained from the previous staff.
Putting his distinctive stamp on the restaurant’s menu, DePersio created a market-driven, “Italian without borders” concept, which includes signature dishes from both Fascino (such as ricotta gnocchi dressed in a sweet sausage Bolognese sauce) and Bar Cara (four-cheese pizza dotted with slices of lardo—cured fatback—and black truffles). But Nico’s menu, he added, is more American-influenced than those at either of his other two restaurants—hence, the appearance of pomegranate-chili wings, crab cake sliders, and a cheddar-topped cheeseburger.