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Chazz Palminteri's Second Act: Restaurateur

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Resident big-screen tough guy Chazz Palminteri—of A Bronx Tale and The Usual Suspects fame—recently added restaurateur to his resume, bringing a slice of his New York neighborhood to Baltimore’s Harbor East area. Aptly named Chazz: A Bronx Original, the family-friendly Italian spot is a partnership between the Oscar-nominated actor and the local Vitale family. Palminteri paid a visit to the Travel + Leisure offices to talk about his latest venture.

Q: What inspired you to open a restaurant?

A: “I always wanted to open a restaurant. But we all know the story: Hollywood actor partners up with aspirational childhood friends, opens to media attention, and the restaurant fails because of management or food issues. I always knew I had to find the right partners—serious restaurateurs who knew how to put out great food consistently, but also manage the restaurant professionally. And I finally found that in the Vitale brothers, Sergio and Alessandro. They grew up in the restaurant business and run one of the best Italian restaurants I’ve ever been to, bar none—Aldo’s in Baltimore—and they shared my vision. Also, food has played an important role in my life since I was young and living in the Bronx. I would wake up and smell the sausage and peppers coming through the windows and wanted to share that experience with everyone else. When you walk into Chazz, you walk into a little piece of my life—the sights, the smells, the tastes—and I’m so happy to share that.

Q: How often are you there?

A: “I am there whenever I have time off, at least once or twice a month. It’s exciting because no one ever knows when I am going to be there and they’re surprised when they see me sitting at my table, eating pasta. I take photos, sign autographs, and try to make everyone feel welcome. It’s just like being in the old neighborhood, in the Bronx.”

Q: How is owning a restaurant like or unlike acting in a movie?

A: “There are so many moving parts to a great restaurant. It’s just like directing a film.  Thousands of questions, every day. There are decisions that will impact the experience of what you’re trying to create and they need to be made on the fly. Directing a movie and running a restaurant both take a lot of planning, an amazing amount of attention to detail, and creativity. The main difference is that once a movie is finished, it’s done and you can stop thinking about it. Running a restaurant takes work every day. It’s a work in progress, it’s never finished and always improving.”

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Q: Why should people come to the restaurant?

A: “First and foremost, they should come to the restaurant because we have the best pizza around. Our Bronx-style pizza is made in a custom coal oven that reaches 1,000 degrees.  It’s thin in the middle, like Neapolitan pizza, but it has a light, crisp crust like the best New York–style pizza. We top it with only fresh mozzarella and fresh tomatoes, and our pepperoni is made for us by hand by a family in New York. Also, everyone has fun at Chazz. You can sit at the pizza altar’ and watch your pizza cook in the oven, you can sit at a table with friends and family, or you can enjoy a handcrafted cocktail and some veal meatball sliders at the bar.”

Q: What are a few of your favorite Italian restaurants, besides Chazz: A Bronx Original, of course?

A: “The restaurant that inspired my partnership with the Vitale’s, Aldo’s in Baltimore. Chef Aldo Vitale (Sergio and Alessandro’s father) has such a light touch with the way he makes food, it’s incredible. Whenever I make it back to the Bronx, I visit Robert’s. And I had the best linguine alle vongole at a restaurant right on the beach in Sicily. If I could remember the name of that place, I would fly there today to get it again. It was incredible.”

Q: What is your perfect Italian meal?

A: “Well, I have this test. I always test the kitchen of an Italian restaurant by ordering a dish of linguine marinara. With a dish as simple as that, you can tell if the kitchen knows what they’re doing. The pasta needs to be perfectly al dente, so you can see the starch glistening against the sauce. The sauce has to be well-made, and there can’t be too much of it. Great extra virgin olive oil. A hint of basil and parmigiano. It’s a litmus test in its simplicity, which is what Italian food is all about to me: balance and simplicity. Good Italian food is as much about what you decide to leave out as what you put in. So for me, a small dish of great pasta, a salad (I really like the roasted beet salad we do at Chazz: A Bronx Original), and maybe a little veal Milanese or grilled fish.”

Brooke Porter is an associate editor at Travel + Leisure.

Photos by Mark Dennis

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