There’s nothing better than good Italian food…unless you add the perfect surroundings, and an attentive owner who makes everyone feel at home. Massa’, in Scarsdale, NY, is the brain child of owner Francesco Coli, who is always at the restaurant, making sure that the food is perfect and the guests are happy.
The ruggedly handsome Coli possesses the knowledge of one who grew up in the restaurant business. As a matter of fact, his father Pasquale is the Head Chef. The senior Coli held the same position for many years working for a posh Italian cruise ship company. Francesco was born in Italy; the family moved to America to give their children a chance to have a better education.
Francesco attended college on a football scholarship, but never gave up his dream of following in his dad’s footsteps. He worked at Ocean Grill in New York; at 24, he opened the successful La Valletta, a popular eatery in Larchmont. When the space grew too small to contain the crowds clamoring for a table on busy nights, Coli decided to dream bigger.
At 35, Coli is on the cutting edge of Italian cuisine, while keeping true to his roots. His inspiration for serving food from coastal Italy traces back hundreds of years. The family was originally from France; they migrated during the days of the Black Plague. Their adopted home, Puglia, is in the Southeastern corner of the Italian peninsula, across from Greece. The name Massa’ is a play on Masseria, the designation for the fortified farmhouses in the area; these were largely owned by aristocrats. The name is also applied to the coastline from Rome to the Southern most region of the country.
Massa’ is a haven for local celebrities, including sports stars, politicians, and on one recent evening, the glamorous Vanessa Williams. She and Francesco discussed their mutual affection for Greece. I know Miss Williams was impressed if she sampled the olives which are brined at the restaurant. Much less salty than ordinary olives, they’re a delightful beginning to every meal. Coli also serves Massa’ Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which is specially created for him, and which puts most other olive oils to shame.
It’s no wonder that Massa’ has attracted an upscale crowd. Set in a beautiful stucco Tudor building, the atmosphere is both casual and romantic. The high ceiling, massive chandelier, and tables set with crisp white and blue checked tablecloths set the tone for the unpretentious yet elegant food.
There are additions to the menu every day, because Francesco and Pasquale visit the market daily to ensure the freshness and quality of the food. On the evening my companion and I dined at Massa’, at Francesco’s invitation we began with a glass of the splendid Brunello di Montalcino/Nardi ’06, a red wine from Toscana; it was like drinking crushed rubies. The wine menu at Massa’ is extensive, with each selection carefully chosen by the Colis.
For the appetizer, we tried Zucchini Fritti, which were hot, crisp, delicious, and served with a lovely tomato dipping sauce.
I love seafood, and I’ve never tasted anything better than what is served here. The Prince Edward Island Mussels are, as the saying goes, “like buttuh.” They are smooth, rich, and perfectly steamed in a light saffron marinara broth.
The Orata, a popular Mediterranean fish, was as light as sea foam; it’s served with artichokes, capers, diced tomato and white wine, all blissfully blended together in a symphony of flavor.
Anyone who loves pasta- which is just about everyone- should look on the menu under Primi for the Bucantini all’ Amatriciana. This is a classic dish from Rome, made with a thicker style spaghetti; guanciale, an unsmoked Italian bacon; and onion, red pepper, tomato sauce, and pecorino cheese. There’s a mild but enticing heat to the dish; all pasta should be made with this much care and skill.
Another real treat is the Veal Balastano. This is a scaloppini served with prosciutto, mushrooms, and melted Fontina cheese. Tender, delightful, this is the dish my companion pronounced the best of the evening.
But that was before we tried the dessert. I consider myself something of a connoisseur of bread pudding, but never have I tasted any that was quite as good as the Panettone at Massa’. Served warm, with crème anglaise and fresh whipped cream, it is a confection made in heaven, which tastes sinful enough to consign the indulger to a more fiery fate. But who cares? Luscious tops calorie conscious in my book, any day.
A hot, foamy cup of cappuccino was the perfect ending to a perfect meal. Francesco Coli came over to talk with us and answer our questions before we left.
“To make a great restaurant, you have to be here, lunch and dinner, all the time. Food is the most important thing; that’s a given. The technique is everything; from there, you just go with your imagination. We also want this to be welcoming as a neighborhood place. It’s fine to come in for a beer on draft. We provide live music on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, starting at 8pm.
We want to make it affordable, so we have a three course pre fixe lunch menu for just $25. And we offer wine tastings, too, to help people broaden their knowledge about what’s being offered.
My dad originally didn’t want me to go into the restaurant business, because he knows how hard it is. Now, he’s not only my Master Chef, but also my biggest supporter. It’s great for us to be working together!”
The best news yet is the hope that the family tradition will continue. Sebastian Coli, aged four, is already showing an interest in cooking.
2 Weaver Street
Scarsdale NY 10583
Photos by Kat McKee
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist, and an unrepentant Foodie. She writes extensively about restaurants and food, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. www.michalljeffers.com