A Little Italian Per Favore

by: Diane Bastarache

photography by: Bill Hoenk

One of the most exciting things to do on Nantucket each spring lies in the discovery of new eateries opening up for the season.

Two of the island’s new restaurants this year are the result of the joint efforts of Andrea Solimeo and Taylor Oliver, the owners of Ventuno at 21 Federal.

Via Mare in the cozy bar and dining space in The Greydon House.

Via Mare, inside the Greydon House on Broad Street, and Pizzeria Gemelle at 2 East Chestnut St., the space formerly occupied by Sushi by Yoshi, are extensions of the Italian cuisine served up at Ventuno.

Via Mare means “by sea” in Italian. The name references the Mediterranean style of food found in the Venetian market quarters where menus revolve around the fresh seafood from the Adriatic Sea and the lagoon.

“I want to honor the food culture on the island by combining a New England and Italian style while using the best meats, fish, vegetables and fruits that the farmers and purveyors on Nantucket offer,” said Solimeo, who believes that food can tell a story about who you are, as much as where you are.

“I want to celebrate the ingredients that the growers offer here, and present people with the full spectrum of what I do, while caring for Nantucket in a sustainable fashion.”

Solimeo was born in the town of Torino just outside of Naples, Italy, and grew up immersed in Italian culture and cuisine. Both of his parents are from Italy: his father from Rome and his mother from Molise. When Solimeo was 10 they moved to Westchester County, N.Y.

“The dinner table was always the focal point in our house. From daily meals to holidays, family and friends gathered and focused on things that mattered most: the beliefs, values, food, joy and warmth that are important to an Italian family,” Solimeo said.

“No matter where you are, food has a way of transporting you, and that’s what the food served in our house did."

Solimeo attended Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. and earned a degree in political science. He said he felt it was important to have a college degree before pursuing other interests.

After graduating, he decided to move to Rubano and Modena, Italy to expand his culinary knowledge of Italian cuisine and get experience working in the kitchens there. He learned, worked and dined at some of the best restaurants in the country, including Le Calandre in Rubano and Osteria Francescana in Modena. Both restaurants left an impression on him and influenced his cooking style.

During his time there, he learned not only about the small-plate concept for sharing, but also the importance of using local, sustainable food that is simply prepared with the freshest ingredients, with an utterly delicious result.

Solimeo came to Nantucket 16 years ago, first working in the kitchen at the now closed Woodbox, before moving on to Seth and Angela Raynor’s The Pearl.

He honed his skills while working his way up the ranks and in 2012 was offered the position of chef de cuisine at Ventuno, formerly 21 Federal. Ventuno, meaning “21” in Italian, was transformed into an Italian trattoria by Gabriel Frasca and Scott Fraley of Straight Wharf Restaurant. It is where Solimeo and Oliver met and formed their friendship.

Oliver was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and earned a degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He uses the skills he learned there to do the branding and design for all three of the current restaurants. Oliver started coming to Nantucket in the summer of 2008, where he worked at 29 Fair and Straight Wharf as a server and wine steward. He became the general manager of Ventuno in 2011.

Oliver and Solimeo shared a love of Italian food and culture. When they were offered the opportunity to acquire Ventuno outright in 2016, they jumped at the chance. They had much in common and the same ideas and vision of what they wanted to do with the restaurant.

While Ventuno continued to prosper under their guidance, they felt there was room to grow. When the space around the corner, Sushi by Yoshi, became available this year, they decided to expand and open an authentic Italian pizzeria. Thus, Pizzeria Gemelle was born. The name means “twins" in Italian and is an homage to Solimeo’s 3-year-old twin daughters, Annabella and Emilia.

The idea was to have a small, casual dining space with a four-seat bar to offer traditional wood-fired pizza, antipasti and small bites that they experienced while traveling through Italy together. The menu offers unique wines and cordials to accompany the authentic wood-fired, 12-inch pizzas with their own style of crust, like a traditional Margherita topped with house-made mozzarella, basil and fancy tomatoes; The Annabella, with pancetta, cracked egg and black truffle; and The Capasante, which features Nantucket bay scallops, pecorino, pancetta and arugula.

There are additional toppings like prosciutto, salame piccante, burrata and more to personalize your pie. Antipasti includes a spicy giardiniera, pickled mushrooms and marinated olives. Everything is freshly made in-house daily.

Gemelle also offers fresh-baked sourdough bread and rotating flavors of gelati available by the scoop or pint. All food is available in the dining room or to take out. Solimeo and Oliver have brought in Elio DiMambro, formerly of Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca in Boston, to oversee the kitchen and be the “pizzaiolo," the term for someone who makes pizza in the traditional Italian way.

Their own style, which is a combination of Roman and Neapolitan, is prepared with simple and fresh ingredients: a basic dough, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, fresh herbs and olive oil, baked in a brick, wood-burning pizza oven that was built on premises over several days. The oven was affectionately named “Pizza Belly” by Solimeo’s wife Megan, a reference to how she referred to her belly while pregnant with their daughters.

Pizzeria Gemelle is open year-round from 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily, with extended hours during the summer.

While they were getting the pizzeria off the ground, another opportunity arose when the management group that operates Greydon House approached them about taking over the dining space inside the boutique hotel. The space was previously overseen by chef Marcus Ware.

Their idea was to bring something different to the food scene and do the space justice. They decided on another, yet different, style of Italian restaurant called Via Mare.

Solimeo’s domain will be the kitchen while

Oliver will oversee the dining room and beverage lists. Though the décor has not changed much in the restaurant, the atmosphere has taken on a warmer and more relaxed vibe, where guests can relax and dine in a convivial space.

The cuisine is seafoodand vegetable-forward, casual and meant to be shared, with appetizers by the piece, small bites and larger plates served family-style. Appetizers include hamachi crudo in a light citrus sauce; vongole ripiene, their version of “stuffies” with a quahog clam stuffing, nduja (a spreadable spicy pork salumi), clam salad and a crispy bread-crumb topping; and butter-poached lobster finger rolls.

Chicken with mushrooms and taleggio, beef tartare and black truffle, house-made pastas like beet-stuffed tortelli with gorgonzola and walnuts, and carmelle with braised rabbit confit and rosemary are perfect plates for one or two to share. The menu will change seasonally.

The cocktail and wine menu features savory flavors in the cocktails that are outside the ordinary, and the diverse wine list highlights sparkling wines and bubbles from around the world. Chef de cuisine Sarah Todd was previously at American Seasons. All three kitchens are overseen by Solimeo.

Via Mare is open year-round for dinner from 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, with the bar open until last call.

Both men are excited to bring these new dining options to the island year-round, and make elevated food more approachable. The style of food offered is meant to be a glimpse of the dishes they researched and experienced while exploring Italy, and a perfect example of how dreams can become reality through hard work and determination.

Diane Bastarache is a frequent contributor to Nantucket Today and writes the “Let’s Eat” column for This Week on Nantucket, in The Inquirer and Mirror.