From Italy to the island, a family dinner generations in the making
by: Katherine Berman
photography by: Terry Pommett
Growing up in the blue-collar town of New Britain, Connecticut, Tom Fusaro and his family would drive to his grandmother’s house every Sunday after church. Nana Jean would have been up since six in the morning, rolling MEATBALLS, crushing GARLIC and squeezing TOMATOES by hand to make her classic Italian red sauce. The rich aroma of simmering MARINARA would greet Fusaro as he opened the door.
Still in his church clothes, he would enjoy a special treat as Nana Jean spooned a sample of meatballs and sauce onto a slice of white Sunbeam bread. This snack was to hold him over until his family returned that evening for their weekly feast of
spaghetti and meatballs, gathered around Nana Jean’s table in her tiny kitchen – talking, laughing and soaking up the magic of family intermingled with old-school Italian cuisine.
“Forty years later, I can still smell the smells and taste the tastes,” Fusaro said. “I can still picture Nana Jean grating cheese and pouring pasta through her colander.”
Today that colander – the conduit for years of mouthwatering memories – sits in a place of honor on the mantel next to the entrance of Fusaro’s, the Old South Road restaurant Fusaro opened with his wife Stacy in April 2011. Under the colander hangs a black and white photograph of Tom’s great-grandparents, Maria and Luigi Fusaro, who came to this country from Calabria, Italy around the turn of the 20th century.
Tom’s pride in his heritage not only imbues Fusaro’s with familial warmth, it dictates his integrity when cooking authentic Italian recipes prepared from scratch. The dishes themselves are a thoughtfully comprised, harmonious balance of bold flavors. Thin slices of provolone bubble atop lightly-breaded cutlets of chicken for the chicken parmesan. Short ribs of beef are braised all day in a stew of vegetables, red wine and aromatics until the meat falls off the bone. Chunks of house-milled San Marzano tomatoes, toasted garlic and ribbons of freshly-grated Pecorino Romano cling doggedly to al dente spaghetti as it spins on a fork.
Yet it is Fusaro’s love of Nantucket that might just be his not-so-secret ingredient.
“The people who live on Nantucket have chosen to live here because they love it. Because they love it, they’re going to take care of it and take care of each other,” he said.
Stacy, an administrative assistant in the Nantucket High School guidance department and mother of three, has been watching Tom’s restaurant dream take shape during his long career as a tradesman on Nantucket.
“He’s been doing this in his head for many, many years,” she said. “Every restaurant we’d go to, he would scan the entire menu. We read novels. Tom reads cookbooks.”
“Where I grew up, every neighborhood had its own little pizza shop or Italian restaurant,” Fusaro said. “My family didn’t go out to dinner much, but if we did, we went to a local Italian joint where you knew the people there and they knew you. I always felt there was a place for that on Nantucket.”
When the perfect mid-island location became available, Fusaro knew it was time to turn his dream into a reality.
Executive chef Karen Thureson is Tom and Stacy’s niece and has been with Fusaro’s from the start. She graduated from Johnson & Wales and spent several years working in Nantucket restaurants to gain the requisite experience for the venture. Fusaro’s inspiration paired with Thureson’s culinary finesse has resulted in consistent dishes that transcend the restaurant’s family-friendly price point.
“The foundation of everything is the red sauce, made, of course, with San Marzano tomatoes,” Fusaro said. “All of our sauces, salad dressings, desserts and even the fresh mozzarella are made in-house.”
The love and dedication are palpable.
Meatballs are widely regarded as the earmark of true Italian food. Fusaro’s fan-favorite Nana Jean’s Meatballs are a tender blend of ground beef, veal and pork served on vibrant marinara sauce and garnished with a dollop of ricotta and fresh herbs. The thin-crust pizza, built on house-made dough, is both chewy and crisp. Its toppings are placed with precision to taste every element in every bite. Fusaro swears the dishes bring him back to the dinners of his youth – back when the whole family would sit down together every day at 5:30 p.m.
Though customers often remark that Fusaro’s cuisine is reminiscent of a night in Boston’s North End, Tom’s thoughtful menu additions ensure that the experience remains uniquely Nantucket. The seasonal Nantucket Bay Scallop Capellini features angel-hair pasta, peppery arugula, salty prosciutto and a lemon-white wine broth, all of which accent the sweet, succulent local scallops.
The bar at Fusaro’s is unfailingly packed with regulars who enjoy lively banter with the affable and informed Melissa Kniskern, chosen by Inquirer and Mirror readers as Nantucket’s best bartender in the newspaper’s 2012 readers poll. Tom and Stacy knew Melissa for years before welcoming her to the team.
“We were setting up the bar one day before the restaurant opened, and we coincidentally spotted Melissa in the parking lot,” Stacy said. “I looked at Tom and said, ‘are you going to go get her or should I’?”
Kniskern, a 10th-generation Nantucketer and descendant of the Pinkham and Folger families, describes every dish on the menu with enthusiasm. Her eyes light up when she hits on her personal favorites, such as the tiramisu for dessert, with a decadent dusting of chocolate and garnished with a fresh strawberry. Even with a bar full of diners, Kniskern’s attention to detail is unwavering as she offers freshly-grated Pecorino-Romano, a nutty, buttery alternative to the usual Parmesan, to each one of her guests when the plate lands in front of them.
On any given night at Fusaro’s, Stacy and Tom can be spotted greeting families and hugging regulars. They exude sincere warmth for their guests and employees, all of whom they regard as an extension of their own family.
In a culinary community that is 50 percent seasonal, the Fusaros have experienced first-hand the challenges of finding a family-friendly restaurant in the off-season.
“What if someone has a birthday in February?” Stacy asked. “We want to be that special place for them.”
Fusaro’s is open year-round and, during the winter, remains a bustling hub for islanders craving what the Fusaros describe as “food just like mom used make.”
“I consider myself very fortunate,“ Tom said. “When we have a full dining room, I stand there, look around, and know just about everyone. The kids are waving at me, little Sadie is drawing ‘I love Fusaro’s’ on her place mat ... it’s that sense of community. There is no place I’d rather be.”
Katherine Berman is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.