Francesco Gargiulli looks like a kid and has the enthusiasm of one.
Under a thick bush of dark curly hair, his eyes light up in sparkles when he talks about… anything, really! And he does talk — a lot and fast — about many things, at times three or even four different subjects at a time, jumping from one to another without ever losing the thread. In short, everything about Gargiulli evokes youth, but what he says carries the weight of experience. After all we’re talking about someone who started working full-time at the age of 16.
A few minutes of conversation are enough to realize Gargiulli is no kid at all. At 38, he has already worked as a chef all over Italy, opened and closed two different restaurants in his native Messina (where he established a name for himself as the city’s “sushi man” after spending six months in Japan to learn that ancient and now fashionable art at its main source), managed to climb the ladder of the restaurant business to the rank of executive chef, and landed the same coveted position at Mast’, one of Boston’s main hangouts for the ever growing and increasingly demanding and sophisticated crowd of Italian expats.“I am just getting started,” he says with a giant smile, making me wonder, for a brief moment, whether I actually caught his age. “No, no, I am really 38,” he reassures me, “but you are not alone: the other day I shaved the three-day shade of a beard I usually wear, and a customer thought I was 20!” And if that customer saw him in action he probably would have thought he was the owner’s son – not because the latter, Marco, a robust bearded man from Naples, looks particularly old, but rather because Francesco tells everybody (sometimes including Marco himself) what to do. It is his job, after all. And given the big crowds the place has been attracting since Gargiulli has been on board, he must be telling everybody something right.
“Having been on the other side – the owner’s side – is helping me a great deal,” he explains with a touch of modesty which he tries to pair with a clearly evident awareness of his own capabilities. “When you say ‘executive chef,’ people think of a fancy cook, while in reality, the time I and those who work my job spend behind the burners is extremely limited compared to what we spend doing everything else.”
In fact, his role is comparable to that of an orchestra director: every day and every night he must play in tune, and not necessarily the same repertoire. But the line of balance, especially considering the fierce competition in this kind of business, and in this kind of town – just as demanding and sophisticated as Mast’s customers – is an extremely fine and blurry one. “The menu, for instance, needs to change constantly, according to seasons and – to an extent – moods; but that has to be done by taking into account the old Italian saying in soccer: ‘No substitutions for a winning team.’”
“The menu has to match the atmosphere of the place as well,” he continues, gradually revealing all his experience in restaurant consulting – another role he took up over the years. “You cannot do fancy Italian in a diner, or burgers in a trattoria-looking place.” Francesco says this while sitting on a leather stool decorated with brass bolts, at a matching bar counter, in an environment that alternates classic austere New England ceilings and red-brick internal walls with wide modern glass windows overlooking the restaurant patio and the old institutional buildings across the street, all surrounded by freshly built skyscrapers. Everything here, apparently not by chance, is a combination of old and new – including the ipad, mounted on vintage automotive and mechanical devices, connecting a special table reserved for selected customers, to the camera in the kitchen downstairs where the chef explains, in real time, what he is doing.
But let’s talk about the food. The pizza, made to order by Fabio – Neapolitan to the point of threatening to leave if not allowed to hang the Napoli soccer team banner by the oven – is as authentic as pizza (in America) can get. Yet, among the just as traditional array of fried antipasti, one might find interesting experiments such as shrimp covered with cocoa powder or a lobster tail breaded with Ritz cookies.
“Innovation is key. At least for me it is, and always has been,” says Gargiulli. Despite spending less and less time in the kitchen, he still thoroughly enjoys it. Every Saturday he makes a point in spending the day mixing and matching ingredients of all kinds, shapes and forms. Having lost his mother at a very young age, cooking became a necessity early in life, soon turning into a creative passion: “I was, and I still am, famous among my friends in Italy for turning essentially empty fridges into fancy dishes. Once I made a meringue cake out of two eggs and two peaches, I even managed to make decorative flowers with the peaches’ skins.”
Later on in one of his restaurants (killed by a combination of economic crisis and, most of all, Italian bureaucracy, he says) he was serving “tuna chewing gum” (whatever that is!) and ice cream flavored by different kinds of fresh cheese coming directly from a friend’s dairy farm. Yet the main testament to Gargiulli’s innovative spirit remains his “sushi man” reputation after introducing the Japanese flagship fare to Messina, preparing nigiri and maki on the spot and serving it to hundreds of customers in clubs, discos and private events — long before sushi became fashionable nationwide.
And God only knows what this Sicilian executive chef whose looks and experience so stridently clash has in store for the customers – among which, given the restaurant’s central location, are also business people and tourists.
After being in the United States for less than a year, Gargiulli has already managed to help his bosses Marco and his partner John add one more name to the short list of Boston Italian restaurants worthy of this name, while sparing his customers the plastic Greek columns and polyester checkered table cloths. And that, even after finding out his real age, has to be considered an impressive accomplishment!