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From dishwasher to executive chef, Italianissimo’s Franco Ortega has worked his way up the responsibility menu
Even though Franco Ortega maintained a love for cooking ever since he was a kid, he never really dreamed of becoming a chef until he got one very big break.
“I was only 17 years old, finishing high school, working as a dishwasher to pay my way through school,” Ortega recalled, adding that on his breaks at Teresa’s, a Little Italy landmark, he would grab a pan and cook something for himself to eat. One night, one of the executive chefs took notice.
“He told me I was a waste,” Ortega said, smiling. “A waste as a dishwasher. He said I knew how to grab a spoon, I knew how to chop and blend ingredients. He wanted to teach me how to cook. Of course, I said yes.”
So Ortega gratefully responded to the tutelage of the seasoned pro. He finished school while working daily in Teresa’s busy kitchen, sometimes toiling for close to 18 hours a day. He pulled inspiration from each line cook and chef he encountered, building a vast repertoire of culinary skills and dishes.
“I’ve basically been working all my life in the restaurant business,” Ortega said. “I grew up in Ecuador where my parents were both cooks. When I came to this country to pursue this career, I started from the bottom and worked my way up to where I am right now.”
Ortega added stints at Pellegrino’s and Casa Bella (both in lower Manhattan) to his resume before settling in Staten Island in 1994. A job as line cook at Il Ponte in South Beach allowed him to continue his education in Italian food.
“When I came to the United States, I took jobs in Italian restaurants, so naturally, that is the type of cuisine that inspired me,” Ortega explained. “I took certain elements from the dishes I made with my parents growing up in Ecuador, like carne apanada, but most of my experience centered around traditional Italian cooking.”
This was a different type of cuisine than what he had learned in Ecuador, to be sure, and his career as chef grew fast.
“Working in all of those kitchens really opened my eyes and made me realize the passion I had for cooking,” Ortega said.
“I was a line cook at Il Ponte and eventually worked my way up to head chef there. I liked the restaurant most because it was family owned; the people who came there for dinner were like guests in our home.”
Ortega stayed on as head chef in the late 90s when two brothers bought the eatery and changed the name to Italianissimo. When they retired in 2006, Ortega knew it was his chance to both own his own place and continue a neighborhood tradition.
Ortega concentrates much of his expertise on providing a menu that offers “a little piece of everything,” as he puts it. Combining all of his culinary experiences, he has created fare that includes authentic Italian cuisine from all areas of Italy—original dishes peppered with elusive ingredients from a range of the peninsula’s coasts.
“I love working with fish,” he explained. “Chilean Sea Bass and other seasonal catches are the best way to start a dish.” Ortega then builds from there, adding whatever is currently in season. “I also pick my own produce, searching the market for whatever is most fresh. It gives me an idea of what I want to do and what specials to offer my guests.”
The self-taught chef then spends about 12 hours daily in the kitchen of his restaurant, working with staff and preparing dishes like Scallops Champagne, Tortellini Venezia (with prosciutto, zucchini, carrots, and cream), and Bocconcino Paesano—a chicken, beef, and sausage dish braised with mushrooms, potatoes, peppers, and balsamic vinegar.
“Unfortunately in this business there’s long hours and no holidays,” he said. “But I love what I do, and there’s no place I’d rather be.”