Food that says “Nantucket” – in the hands of an Italian chef

by: Hana Schuster and Marianne R. Stanton

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

From the owners of Straight Wharf Restaurant and Provisions, comes a new restaurant that chefs Gabriel Frasca and Amanda Lydon say delivers cuisine that is reflective of what an Italian chef would do with the fresh, seasonal produce and ingredients he would find on Nantucket.

Together with the third member of their team, general manager Scott Fraley, they have created Ventuno, a bustling Italian restaurant that has replaced long-standing Nantucket favorite 21 Federal after the latter declined to renew its lease.

Lydon and Frasca have worked at some of the most celebrated kitchens in New England over their careers. It has been five years since the duo took over Straight Wharf Restaurant, with Fraley also a partner, making it one of the top-rated restaurants on Nantucket. They are making waves, yet again, at Ventuno, where they serve up fresh, seasonal produce, handmade pastas, fish, shellfish and meats with Italian flavors and sensibilities. All three are well-poised to take on the challenge.

After graduating from Harvard University, Lydon earned a scholarship to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and took a kitchen position at Chez Henri in Cambridge upon her return to Boston. There she met Frasca and the two jetted off to Europe to travel and cook side by side. Followed by stints in the kitchen of the two-Michelin-starred L’Abbaye de Saint Croix in Provençe, the pair lived in Boston, cooking some of the most inventive and talked-about cuisine in the city.

Fraley, who grew up in the South, originally planned to be a minister before catching the restaurant bug while working at Harvest in Cambridge while in graduate school at Boston College. He met Frasca at Michael Schlow’s Radius in Boston in 2001 – a restaurant where Lydon had also worked – where he ran the wine program and Frasca was chef de cuisine. He was also general manager at Schlow’s Via Matta.

After the success of Straight Wharf, Fraley and Frasca held on to hopes of opening another new restaurant. “There was an existing tradition (at 21 Federal) of a restaurant that everyone loved,” Fraley said. “We saw a great opportunity to continue that, so we jumped on it.”

“We provide a setting where great nights can happen.” Gabriel Frasca
“We provide a setting where great nights can happen,” Frasca said. “All the other elements – the space, the service – they’re just vehicles we use to offer warmth and hospitality.”

“We wanted a fine-dining restaurant, since I think it best reflects the building and kind of picks up where 21 (Federal) left off,” said Fraley, “but we also wanted something more democratic and accessible.”

Ventuno boasts an upscale, gourmet menu without the pretense and snobbery that such high-end establishments often fall victim to. The staff creates a welcoming environment with a casual friendliness, making it difficult not to feel at home.

The owners have transformed the dimly-lit gentleman’s club vibe of 21 Federal into a lighter, more relaxed space by adding shades of olive green to the walls complemented by simple black and white photography and a few well-chosen pieces of art. Vases of herbs replace flowers as centerpieces on the tables: sprigs of spearmint and dill decorate the dining room, adding an unexpected, understated elegance to the setting, while rustic wall sconces bathe the rooms in soft golden light.

More than the updates to the interior, however, Ventuno’s menu stands out as the biggest change. The food is modern, fresh and creative, made by individuals who are not only talented chefs, but passionate about the flavors and textures they present. Constantly seeking out the freshest locally-grown produce to feature on their menu, the owners change their offerings almost daily to reflect the best of what’s available.

The menu is divided into five sections: morsels, appetizers, pastas, entrées and desserts. The morsels are akin to tapas, small plates meant to be shared by the table. The eggplant crostini with whole marinated anchovies and pine nuts, with its balance of sweet, salty and savory flavors, is the perfect introduction to the Italian feast yet to come. If you’re not a fan of a savory and salty opening, try the goat’s milk ricotta crostini with burnt orange and truffle honey for a strictly sweet approach.

More inventive dishes are found in the Dateri, Medjool dates stuffed with whole hazelnuts, wrapped in a thin strip of bacon and roasted. Sweet and salty, they taste like candy. The chickpea fries are falafel-like batons of fried chickpeas served with a sweet fig condiment and cool and creamy yogurt. One of the most interesting morsos is the fried Castelvetrano olives, stuffed with pork sausage, and, yes, deepfried. The pork and beef meatballs in tomato sauce are savory and make you wish you could order a whole plate full – with spaghetti.

But be cautious about filling up on too many of these tidbits because you will want to try one of the antipasti before going on to the pasta dishes (Primi) and meat or fish preparations (Secondi).

The scungilli, braised local conch, sliced thin and simmered in a sofrito with bruschetta for soaking up the savory broth, is delicious. So too is the burrata, handmade mozzarella topped with sautéed broccoli rabe and balsamic vinegar. There are salads too: a rendition of a grilled Caesar and a simple green salad of romaine, mint, dates, almonds and preserved lemon – and chilled oysters and mussels.

If you’re craving authentic, handmade pastas, Ventuno has more than half a dozen creative options. The pappardelle with roast suckling pig and deep fried pork rinds is flavored with marjoram (oregano’s more subtly-flavored cousin), a drizzle of sweet grape syrup, called saba, and topped with peeled, sliced grapes that add a refreshing touch to an otherwise rich dish. The whole wheat casarecce, a kind of short tubular pasta, with ramps, asparagus and ricotta is a hearty dish, yet completely vegetarian.

From the entrée selections, the osso bucco with saffron risotto and ramp gremolata, an herb condiment made from wild leeks, grated lemon peel and garlic, is flavorful and satisfying. The meat falls away from the bone in tender strips, and the gremolata, with its fresh flavors of citrus and herbs, is a welcome interruption of the richness of the meat and risotto. The dry-aged grilled sirloin steak, brushed with truffle oil and served with potatoes fried in duck fat and buttery chanterelle mushrooms, is highly flavorful.

For seafood lovers, the halibut poached in olive oil and served with baby artichokes, fava beans, salsa verde and homemade pork sausage has notes of green accenting the perfectly-cooked fish. Brodetto is a shellfish dish, with shrimp, baby octopus, mussels and scallops, all simmered in a tomato-fennel broth that is intense in flavor.

Ventuno’s desserts range from light to decadent. A dessert that Frasca calls “Nantucket on a plate” is a goat’s-milk panna cotta, using milk from island farmer Ray Owen’s goats, and drizzled with a pink syrup made from fragrant hand-picked beach-rose petals. Straight Wharf Restaurant is known for its fruit crostatas, which must be ordered with the main course to allow for proper cooking time. Frasca carries that tradition over to Ventuno, and in June offered a rhubarb crostata with orange caramel sauce and homemade honey gelato. In fact, several gelato flavors are offered, but the most decadent dessert is the bomboloncini: Italian doughnuts filled with molten bittersweet chocolate. Two are served warm with homemade pistachio gelato and a drizzle of chocolate sauce.

The wine list is clearly a labor of love, the work of a dedicated sommelier. The restaurant is featuring a small but notable selection of Sagrantino di Montefalco wines, which are not often found on wine lists in North America. Until recently, the Sagrantino grape was used exclusively to produce sweet dessert wines in the Umbria region of central Italy. The dry wines, however, are full-bodied intense reds with heavy tannins, but soft and flavorful once allowed to breathe.

Like the menu, there are several price points on the wine list. Frasca said from the outset he wanted to make Ventuno a lively, bustling place which is accessible to everyone. He appears to be achieving just that.

“We don’t want people to leave just talking about the wine or the food,” Frasca said. “That means we just sell food. It should be about the whole experience.” And at Ventuno, it is. 

Marianne Stanton is editor and publisher of Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. Hana Schuster is a reporter for The Inquirer and Mirror.