Scott and Heather Fratangelo of Rye Brook toast to their new restaurant in Ardsley.
Scott and Heather Fratangelo of Rye Brook toast to their new restaurant in Ardsley.
This month Valentine's Day is the main culinary happening-and one of the biggest of the year at that. It's a day to share at least dinner with your beloved. For husband and wife Scott and Heather Fratangelo of Rye Brook, this Feb. 14 will be their first shared as owners of their very own restaurant-L'inizio in Ardsley.

L'inizio, which opened Jan. 24, means "the beginning" in Italian. "We liked the one word, we do like it to be Italian and I think the meaning is great," said Scott, 39, a graduate of New York Tech's culinary program. "It is a new beginning for us as far as setting new roots and developing this new life in Westchester and making it our life."

Heather was from Staten Island, Scott from Long Island, and they met at Union Square Café in New York City where he was a sous chef and she was interning while attending the French Culinary Institute in NYC for pastry and then got a job there. Later they went to the Hamptons and ran a kitchen there for a while but decided they didn't like working in a resort area where everyone else was on vacation. So they went back to Manhattan and opened Spigolo with partners in 2005.

"It was such a great time," said Heather. "We developed nice regulars and have such great memories." But eventually they thought it was time to move on.

Scott got a job at Harvest on Hudson in Hastings, and then this opportunity in Ardsley came up to do something without any partners and they jumped on it.

"When Scott was working for somebody else, he wasn't that passionate," said Heather. "When he is working for himself is when he is the most excited."

In the meantime, three years ago the Fratangelos moved to Rye Brook with their two daughters, Emilia, now 6, and Chiara, now 4, buying a house on Tamarack Road.

"I love it," said Heather, also 39. "It's a small community and almost everyone is in the same boat as you."
Out of the working world since her oldest daughter was born, Heather started Frosted Spoon Desserts in 2011, specializing in making and decorating cakes for all occasions. She had a booth at the short-lived Rye Brook farmers' market. A friend showed me a photo of a 40th birthday cake Heather had made that was in the shape of an elegant beaded woman's shoe sitting atop a display, and it was entirely edible.

Italian-inspired and seasonal food

The food at the Fratangelos' new venture in Ardsley is Italian-inspired and seasonal, using locally sourced ingredients whenever possible.

"What I'm doing now is developing relationships and I'm going through a vendor that brings stuff in, but I have some farmers up here lined up for the spring," said Scott. "It will start in another month and a half or two months and it will be all from up here."

Until then, he's still making yummy salads with available produce like the roasted winter squash with Brussels sprouts, pancetta vinaigrette and walnut pesto with shaved parmesan ($11), a delightful combination of flavors and textures.

He's already getting eggs from Hemlock Hill Farm in Cortlandt and ricotta from Hudson Milk Company in Shrub Oak which he smokes himself.

Organic ingredients are not cheap, said Scott, and neither is the food at L'inizio where my husband's and my meals with drinks on two separate occasions came to about $60 per person.

Scott said he incorporates a lot of ingredients used in Italy into his cooking but doesn't make the traditional dishes. He calls his interpretation of the food "minimalist on the plate."

There are four pasta dishes on the menu and all of the pasta for them is made from scratch in-house. Stemming from Scott and Heather's Italian-American heritage with its red sauce and Sunday dinners, on Sundays the Fratangelos plan to offer a side of meatballs special.

Originally thinking this was an Italian restaurant, I was drawn to the pastas and was blown away by the ricotta cavatelli with fennel sausage Bolognese and parmigiano ($22, $15 for appetizer portion). Small, tightly rolled pasta is combined with a meat-based tomato sauce made with house made sausage and topped with parmesan cheese for an exceptionally flavorful dish. Additional cheese is shaved on top of the pasta at the table as desired.

The acorn squash ravioli ($15/$23) with crown maple brown butter, sage and ricotta salata is delicate and sweet, but that sweetness is cut by the taste of the ricotta salata, a variation of ricotta that has been pressed, salted and dried. Six ravioli proved a modest but adequate portion in concert with a shared salad, appetizer and dessert.
The menu will change seasonally with availability. "By the end of March the menu is going to change," said Scott. "That's the best part. All of the spring veg comes in." He expects the menu to stay the same size as it is now. "It's not very big," he added. "It's hard to go big and be fresh."

Besides the menu, there are three specials-an appetizer or soup, a risotto or pasta and an entrée.

A match made in heaven

Naturally, Heather is in charge of the divine desserts, so for a couple of restaurateurs, it's a match made in heaven. She is also in charge of the front end of the restaurant, hostessing Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Having started out in nursing, Heather quickly switched over to pastry. "I hear a lot of nurses go to cooking or baking," she said. "You want to make people happy or better."

Her pleasant personality is well suited to greeting customers and making them feel at home, and her desserts are well worth saving room for. The apple crostada ($8) is like a mini tarte aux pommes with a buttery, flaky crust and is topped with a scoop of vanilla black pepper semifreddo. The moist, cupcake-size portion of date pudding is surrounded by a sweet rum sauce and served with a dollop of mascarpone and two slices of blood orange. And then, of course, the chocolate soufflé tart with Nutella semifreddo ($8) is to die for, served warm and oozing with chocolate once you cut into it with a fork. The semifreddo on the side looks like chocolate ice cream but is actually a delicious cold whipped dessert made with Nutella, whipped cream and meringue.

L'inizio replaced award-winning chef Shea Gallante's Italian Kitchen. The Fratangelos took over Italian Kitchen's Open Table account and phone number and opened only about a month after their predecessor closed his eatery serving the same genre of food.

"We did it smartly this time I feel like," said Heather, whose younger sister, Kristie Campbell, a sommelier, is in charge of developing the wine list. There's a small list of wines by the glass and bottle on the back of the menu right now which will expand to about 50 bottles. They will be predominantly Italian with some French and California selections.

"We have to do it smartly," said Heather, making the wines approachable and offering a nice variety, mostly in the $30 to $70 range.

I recommend the Italian Blend from Piedmont, Italy ($10 glass, $48 bottle) on the current list which is super smooth and amazingly light for a red wine.

There is also a full bar and a special cocktail listed on the blackboard each night ($12). On my two visits to L'inizio, less than a week apart, the cocktails were both made with blood orange, gin (Tanqueray or Greenhook Ginsmiths), rosemary and basil-tasty and refreshing.

What's in store for Valentine's Day?

When we spoke last Thursday, not even a week after L'inizio's opening, Scott had some ideas about what he would be featuring as specials for Valentine's Day in addition to the a la carte menu.

"I know I am going to do a lobster and truffle risotto ($15 appetizer, $28 main course), a sea scallop dish ($29) and I would like to do a lamb chop dish which is called scottadito ($29)." These are lamb chops slightly pounded and quickly cooked after being marinated in balsamic and olive oil. Scottadito means "burned fingers" in Italian. The dish is named scottadito because the lamb chops are so delicious you can't resist eating them sizzling hot and burning your fingers.

Since L'inizio will only have been open three weeks on Valentine's Day, Scott feels it's too early to offer a prix fixe menu. "I would rather get the exposure and just get out there," he said.

Often first impressions can make or break a restaurant. Quoting Scott: "This is a critical time for us."
For dessert, Heather is whipping up chocolate soufflé with a merlot zabaglione and a New York cheesecake with white balsamic and raspberries.

"She has a dynamite cheesecake recipe," said Scott.

Simple décor

The décor at L'inizio is minimalistic and hasn't changed much from what it was when the space, which seats 55 in two dining rooms, was occupied by the previous tenant. Since then the walls were painted gray and the rough wainscoting below was whitewashed, giving it a bluish tint. In the dark with oil lamps on the tables and dim lighting, the paneling and walls take on a greenish hue.

Wooden tables and matching chairs with cane seats nearly match the wood floors. There are no tablecloths, just white cloth napkins.

A simple bar/waiter's stand separates the two rooms and a multitude of mason jars filled with roasted red peppers, artichokes and the like occupy a high rough-hewn wood shelf as you walk from one room to the next. Unframed paintings of vegetables hang on the walls as well as two large framed mirrors and blackboards displaying daily specials. In the back room curtains that resemble burlap are tied at the middle. Despite sound deadening panels, it was fairly noisy in the back room on the first Saturday the restaurant was open.

Dinner for two

We started our meal with the refreshing blood orange Tanqueray cocktail with rosemary and basil ($12).

Next came the chicken liver paté appetizer ($11) served on three crisp crostini and topped with pear chutney and a sage leaf garnish. The paté was moist and the chutney, not too sweet, on the crunchy toasted French bread made for a wonderful mélange of flavors and textures.

The savory roasted winter squash salad ($11) mentioned earlier was next on the agenda.

Servers bring around individual pieces of delicious house made ciabatta and basil grissini (bread sticks), the latter having a definite black pepper kick.

To accompany our meal we had a glass of Arneis Elvio Tinero 2011 white wine ($9) from Piedmont, Italy, a pleasant blend of pinot grigio and chardonnay, and another of the Italian blend ($10) mentioned earlier.

Our main courses were the ricotta cavatelli with fennel sausage Bolognese and parmigiano ($22) I previously raved about and wild striped bass with baby clams (6), pancetta and hedgehog mushrooms in a fish and tomato stock with faro ($24). This dish consisted of a good-sized piece of fish with the skin on and chunks of pancetta sitting on top of the wheat grain like an island with the clams swimming in the broth around it. All in all it provided for an appetizing combination of flavors.

For dessert, we chose the delectable chocolate soufflé tart with Nutella semifreddo ($9) described earlier along with a cappuccino ($4) and a single malt scotch ($12).

There are both waiters and waitresses at L'inizio and this time we had a very efficient and professional waiter whereas on our first visit a friendly and equally efficient waitress met our every need on a busy Saturday night.
Our meal without tip came to $118.11.

Hours and what's up for the future

For now, L'inizio is only open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. and Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. The restaurant is closed Mondays.

The Fratangelos plan to start serving brunch at some date in the future and may eventually open their restaurant for lunch.

L'inizio is located in a little shopping center at 698 Saw Mill River Rd. Parking is in an adjacent lot or on the street. For reservations, call 914-693-5400.