In Jersey City, Ryan DePersio’s
latest endeavor: Battello
By Pat Tanner
Photography by Clay Williams
“High energy” is a descriptor often applied to Ryan De- Persio, the 37-year-old executive chef behind three well-regarded New Jersey restaurants: Fascino in Montclair, Nico Kitchen & Bar at NJPAC in Newark and, since March 2014, Battello on the waterfront in Jersey City. There he has focused his trademark “Italian without borders” cuisine on seafood, with creations like fresh casarecce pasta with roasted octopus, soppressata, pesto and bottarga; and a rollatini that, in place of eggplant, has as its key ingredient thin slices of raw, sushi-grade yellowfin tuna.
The tuna is rolled around shaved fennel and cucumber matchsticks, laid atop avocado mousse and drizzled with yuzu-sesame vinaigrette. But “high energy” applies equally to the newly vibrant Jersey City dining scene, which has exploded over the last two years. Trendsetters, besides Battello, include Thirty Acres, established by alumni of New York City’s famed Momofuku, and Talde, an outpost of “Top Chef” star Dale Talde’s eponymous Brooklyn spot. (That restaurant had lines two-and-a-half hours long shortly after it opened in Jersey City in February.) Throw into the mix the new-wave artisan pizza makers at Razza and Porta (both profiled in previous issues of Edible Jersey) and Carrino Provisions, an Italian market-café by HGTV’s “Kitchen Cousins,” and a French chocolatier from Brooklyn (Eric Girerd of L’Atelier Du Chocolat)— and that still doesn’t cover the entire scene.
Both DePersio, who was just 25 when he garnered a rating of “excellent” from The New York Times for his work at Fascino, and Cory Checket, Battello’s main operating partner, admit they were nervous about being able to fill the restaurant’s 175-plus seats. “But the response has been fantastic,” Checket says, and DePersio chimes in, “Our first summer here was crazy!” Even on a frigid midweek evening this past February, he was expecting 130 diners, not counting the mostly young bar crowd that coalesces after work. “It’s because Jersey City’s a huge town with many young people, a lot of money and people who are willing to try new things,” he reasons. Jersey City is, in fact, the state’s second most populous city, behind Newark. PATH trains and NY Waterway ferries make the commute to Manhattan mere minutes away. “It takes friends of mine eight minutes to go door to door from Jersey City to Christopher Street,” says Checket, who also owns the Turtle Club, an upscale bar and restaurant in Hoboken.
DePersio gestures to the few yachts still moored alongside Battello, which is situated on the Newport Marina and has a matchless, picture- postcard view across the Hudson River to lower Manhattan. “I’m glad that we came in at the right time,” Battello says. Adds Checket, “I wasn’t sure this area was ready for the level of food Ryan was going to bring. As it turns out, Jersey City has a lot of really creative chefs who are really stepping outside the box.”
“High energy”, a descriptor often applied
to DePersio, applies equally to the newly
vibrant Jersey City dining scene, which
has exploded over the last two years.
When the DePersio family opened Fascino in 2003, modern takes on traditional Italian fare were virtually unheard of on this side of the river, and were still nascent even in New York City. Mario Battali’s groundbreaking Babbo had opened in 1998, but other linchpins had yet to be born. DePersio defines “Italian without borders” as “modern, market-inspired Italian dishes” that incorporate international influences. Two of his now classic signatures are ricotta gnocchi with sweet sausage Bolognese and an Italianized wedge salad with romaine, Caesar dressing, prosciutto and ricotta salata.
“Italian without borders came about because of my education and training,” DePersio explains. That training included working for more than two years with the legendary Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York City, at both Jean Georges and the pan-Asian Vong. “I was always bad in school—I was very Ferris Bueller–like,” DePersio says. “In high school I called in as my dad’s voice and forged my dad’s name. Luckily, my mother started to teach me how to cook when I was 11 or 12. I played only one sport, and my parents both worked full-time. My older brother played all sports, all year, so I was the first one home every day. At first, my mother would leave me notes with finished dinners, but eventually she started teaching me and by the time I was in my early teens I was the one making dinner. After tenth grade, the school recommended work-study. So I went to three classes and by 10:45 a.m. I would be at a job. I worked at a small catering hall, and I got hooked. I discovered that I wanted two things: to cook and to make money. So seven days a week I had a job—a few hours each day. Besides the catering place, I delivered pizzas, I washed dishes at a café, and I made salads at a little restaurant.” All this took place in the Nutley area, where DePersio grew up and where he still lives.
At the age of 18 he went to the New York Restaurant School and by age 19 was working in the city at Bouley, David Bouley’s upscale fine-dining French restaurant. “Next I went to JUdson Grill, where Bill Telepan was doing New American. From there I went to Paris, where I worked at a two-Michelin-star restaurant. I came home and worked for Jean Georges, which was very modern but still grounded in French technique. Plus I come from an Italian family! When I left Jean Georges, the general manager got me into a three-Michelin-star in Italy. It introduced me to upscale modern Italian dishes. I simply fell in love. I thought, this is what I want to do: Italian, but not veal parmigiana.”
Ryan DePersio and Cory Checket first met years ago, when Checket attended a wine dinner at Fascino, the DePersio family’s fine-dining Italian restaurant. The two men stayed in touch, and about three years ago, after dining at the family’s second restaurant, Bar Cara in Bloomfield (since sold), Checket expressed interest in working with DePersio and asked the chef to take a look at the property that would become Battello (which means “boat” in Italian). At the time it was Michael Anthony’s, a traditional Italian restaurant.
“The space needed millions of dollars of work and a lot of focus,” recalls DePersio. A year passed and Checket reconnected to say he was closing in on the deal. “But at that time I needed to sell Bar Cara, which I thought would take a year, so I told him I couldn’t jump into anything and would have to back away.” Instead, Bar Cara sold within two months (it is now the Yellow Plum), and De- Persio came aboard.
The team hired designer Anthony Carrino of HGTV’s “Kitchen Cousins” fame to transform the sprawling, worn, high-ceilinged space. (That’s the same Carrino who, along with his cousin John Colaneri, Dale Talde and others, is behind the aforementioned Carrino Provisions.)
“It was a challenge to make a place this big still feel warm,” Checket says. “The way we accomplished that was by segmenting it.” The large first floor is divided between the main dining area and a long bar and leads directly to a four-seasons “patio,” which is glassed in on three sides and affords the best of those impressive views. There, after sunset, hundreds of filament lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling mimic the lights of the soaring towers across the river. Reclaimed wood and soaring, sandblasted curved ceiling trusses add to the nautical-industrial chic vibe. There’s a separate party room/ lounge and a 16-seat private dining area in the wine room, both also on the main level. Upstairs is the bridal suite. “We have 20 weddings booked for 2015,” DePersio says.
DePersio was at Battello full-time for its first six months. Now, having installed Keyon Coleman— who has worked at Bar Cara and the Saddle River Inn—as chef de cuisine, he’s there three days a week. At Nico, where DePersio is consulting executive chef, chef de cuisine Todd Allen is “pretty much running the kitchen,” De- Persio says. “I spend two to three days a month there and they’re doing great. This past year has been their best.” As for Fascino (which means “fascination” in Italian), he says, “I’m there only one or two days a week. It really runs itself. I have three guys on the kitchen crew who have been with me about eight years. I have a waiter who’s been with me for 12 and others for nine. I, my parents—we can all go on vacation for a week and nothing changes—nothing.”
DePersio credits such loyalty, in part, to bringing staff along. His general manager at Fascino, Chris Pavone, for example, started as an 18-year-old busboy when that restaurant opened. In addition, De- Persio says, “I’m a stickler for working five days a week. That doesn’t mean I always do, but I try to keep all my staff on it, too. I believe those two days off really charge you up. As an owner, as a consultant, having all these locations—there’s always something that can go wrong. But I try not to get greedy and I always try to make sure I have enough staff in place that I don’t take advantage. The one thing I do miss is cooking more. It’s hard when you’re running three kitchens.
Fascino is the only place I actually cook. It will always be my baby because it made me what I am.”
Fascino has also always been a family affair. DePersio’s mother, Cynthia, is its pastry chef. Like her son, she has an impressive professional background, having worked at Gramercy Tavern and Gotham Bar and Grill in Manhattan and Bayona and Herbsaint in New Orleans. Father Anthony is the business manager. Both parents can be found working the dining room on Friday and Saturday nights.
It’s possible that Fascino may see a third generation of DePersios. “I have an amazing wife, Stephanie, two kids, two dogs, two cats—it’s a complete zoo,” he laughs. His elder son, Nicholas, 9, is from a previous marriage. “Nico” is his nickname, which gave rise to the name of the NJPAC restaurant. Luca was born in November 2013. On De- Persio’s left forearm is a tattoo that spells out “Nicholas Vincent” in large, colorful script, plus that son’s astrological sign and birth flower.
He points to his right forearm. “In two weeks I’m making an appointment to fill up this arm with Luca’s,” he says. “My wife and I go out to dinner every week, kind of like a date night. But we take the boys out as well, including to places like dell’anima in New York. I’m determined to give them the experience of going to good restaurants.”
The newest endeavor for this high-energy chef is a series of cooking videos he’s starring in on the website of the New York Post. A new three-minute webisode gets posted every two weeks. DePersio’s effervescence and good looks, plus a self-described “love to schmooze” have made him something of a media star. He has appeared on the “Today Show” and CBS’s “2 in the Kitchen,” and in 2010 he was a contestant on Food Network’s “Chopped.” With everything going on, he also still works out five days a week.
DePersio is far from done. For his next act he wants to open a simple trattoria. “I’m thinking 50 seats, no reservations, wood-fired pizzas and stromboli, baked pastas, maybe two or three entrées—very traditional Italian and very casual. Right now Battello and the New York Post are keeping me busy. But I will do it.”
502 Washington Blvd., Jersey City
Pat Tanner is a food writer, restaurant critic and co-founder of Slow Food Central Jersey. See more at dinewithpat.com.