February 2021

Perfecting the Experience: Nunzio Patruno will stop at nothing until the restaurant that bears his name offers absolute perfection.

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

It was a night not so long ago, more or less the same as any other night at Nunzio Restaurant + Bar. The wine was flowing, uncorked and poured with practiced ease from a carefully curated collection that takes center stage right as you walk in. The food was as sublimely delicious as ever, each dish chosen to represent the pinnacle of Italian techniques and local flavors. And the conversation buzzed, as it tends to when diners are enjoying a meal to remember.

Every table was enjoying an experience that would bring them back again and again. All, this is, except for one. One single table out of the dozens in different dining areas peppered throughout Nunzio’s expansive footprint had a less-than-stellar experience. When we spoke, that one table’s dissatisfaction weighed heavily on Patruno’s mind. “I couldn’t sleep last night,” Patruno said. “I just kept thinking about it.”

The more you speak with Nunzio Patruno about the restaurant that bears his name, the more you see his relentless pursuit of creating the perfect dining experience. Not great. Not even fantastic. Perfect. That’s the standard.

You can see it in the way that one table bothers him so much. But you can also see it in the way the restaurant has constantly evolved since it opened, improving at increments on an experience that was already one of the most celebrated on the island. Anyone else might see an exquisite dining experience par excellence. Patruno sees room for improvements.

When we spoke, the most visible aspect of that march toward an ever-higher standard was the construction underway on the front porch. What had been an uncovered deck was in the process of becoming a covered outdoor dining area, still being framed out at the time.

“I’m making the investment because more people want to dine outside,” Patruno said. “Outdoor dining, I think, is going to continue to be popular even after all of the restrictions lift from corona.”

Stretching across the front patio, the wood-framed roof will contain fans and heaters for year-round comfort. And Patruno is just getting started. The restaurant’s rear garden, an intimate outdoor dining space surrounding a massive live oak tree, is next.

“We’re trying to cover both of the outdoor spaces,” he said. “I want to do some kind of retractable roof. We have the tree in the middle so that will take some magic.”

Fortunately, magic is Patruno’s specialty. You’ll find plenty of it on his restaurant’s menu, which is also something he is almost constantly improving. Part of that is that endless desire to achieve perfection, but part of that is just Patruno gleefully experimenting with new flavors.

“I like to do different specials—ossobuco, we always have Tuesday fish specials, some appetizers… As we get into the season, I’ll play around with some local produce, eggplant, zucchini flower, just to have that special that changes on a daily or weekly basis,” he said. “It’s nice to throw my chefs a curveball every once in a while. It lets you stay seasonal and also gives the kitchen a little bit of a chance to experiment.”

As with anything else in his restaurant, the specials represent a culinary experience where the standard is perfection. “We keep it simple because I want to keep the quality of food and the delivery of the food perfect,” Patruno said.

That same willingness to experiment will soon manifest in some exciting, expanded offerings at Nunzio Restaurant + Bar. Beyond seasonal tweaking of the menu and introduction of specials, Patruno has two new programs planned that will expand on what Nunzio is as a concept and introduce this exquisite Italian eatery to an entirely new audience. “I’m introducing a wine flight. I want to start it slowly, but what we’ll have is five different tastings of wine that come out together. We’re testing it right now,” he said.

The flights will give diners a chance to explore their palette and their tastes in wine with flights that cross regions and varietals. One example Patruno brings up is a flight from California to Italy, with different reds and whites from various areas of both storied wine regions. Another would be a flight of whites or a flight of reds, letting rookie oenophiles learn the differences between a cabernet sauvignon and a chianti, for example.
“We don’t want the flight to be too expensive, so it’s a good entry for younger people who want to explore wine,” Patruno said. “Younger people go into something like this with more of an open mind, rather than when you’re older and already know what you like.”

Along with the new wine flights, Patruno is borrowing a page from the Italian enoteca, a wine experience that is growing in popularity in his homeland. “You go to Italy and they are popping up everywhere,” he said. “It’s like a boutique wine store where they’ll serve wine with different prosciutto, salami and cheeses.”

This new enoteca-inspired antipasto will roll out soon. Literally. “I bought a big slicing machine. It’s mechanical, so it’s heavy, you know? I’m building a cart I can move around, and I’ll have a table of sliced prosciutto, mozzarella, some salami, some pickled vegetables, mushrooms, olives … really rustic Italian style,” he said. “I think people are going to love it, because no one else does it.”

That table-sized fresh-sliced antipasti will add an entirely new dynamic to the restaurant, with Patruno out front and center as he slices up fresh Italian delicacies hand-selected to complement the wine. “I’m going to be out there doing the whole show; that’s going to be part of it,” he said.

When Nunzio Restaurant + Bar opened its doors, it was immediately lauded for the stylish aesthetic of its dining rooms, its brilliantly curated wine list and its menu of truly authentic Italian flavors. For most diners, it represented a nearly perfect experience.

For Patruno, it was just the start. And he’s been working every day since to turn nearly perfect into perfect.

For more information, visit nunziohhi.com.

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