Every Italian knows a good tomato sauce should strike the ideal balance between sweetness and tang. That formula also describes the working relationship between Touch of Venice owners Ettore Pennacchia and his son Brian, who are executive chefs at the Cutchogue restaurant.
The elder Pennacchia, 67, retreats to the Main Road establishment’s kitchen six days a week to prepare mainstays like stuffed artichokes and veal parmigiana. Cooking alongside him is Brian, 42, who stays on top of the latest culinary trends in an effort to add unexpected twists to Dad’s old-school Italian recipes.
“My father brings the history,” Brian said in an interview at the restaurant, which relocated five years ago from a waterfront setting in Mattituck to the former Fisherman’s Rest on Main Road. “I work on all the specials; I do anything new. We have a good mix.”
“He lets me know about things,” his father added. “I don’t have patience anymore. He’s up on everything.”
Ettore, who splits his time between Selden and Cutchogue with his wife, Barbara, grew up on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn. An electrician by trade, he opened his first restaurant, Ettore’s, in Selden in 1976. Twelve years later, Touch of Venice made its debut on Wickham Avenue in Mattituck. In 2011, the restaurant moved to its current 3,000-square-foot space, which has been renovated from top to bottom.
Although Ettore and Barbara raised their children in central Suffolk County (in addition to Brian, they have sons Michael and Andrew and a daughter, Karen), the family has long enjoyed spending time on the North Fork.
“We grew up in Selden, but my mother’s family has owned a house in Cutchogue since the 1930s,” said Brian, who lives in Aquebogue with his wife, Norine, and 9-year-old daughter, Lily. “I spent every summer of my life out here.”
When Touch of Venice opened in the late 1980s, Ettore recalled, the North Fork was still years away from its rebirth as a foodie destination. Locals knew what they liked back then and could be resistant to change.
“They wanted fried flounder,” Ettore said. “You almost had to indoctrinate the people.”
Once he managed to convince the public to give his creations a try, Ettore said, they were hooked — and dutifully followed the Pennacchias to Cutchogue.
The 150-seat restaurant features a large bar and glass-enclosed wine room, two dining areas and a private party room. An outdoor patio area, which can accommodate another 50 guests, is dotted with authentic Deruta tables that hint of the Italian countryside, lending a sense of calm to an otherwise bustling part of town.
“We’re in a good location,” Brian said. “We don’t have the extremes of, say, Greenport, where they’re very busy in the summer but then they get very slow. That’s a long off-season. We get slower in the off-season, but we have a pretty consistent crowd.”
Being on Main Road has other perks, too. Directly next door to the restaurant is Wickham’s Fruit Farm, where the Pennacchias routinely purchase local produce.
“I’ll walk over and say, ‘Hey, we need three dozen corn’ or ‘I’ll need two baskets of peaches,’ ” Ettore said.
The Pennacchias also source fish from Braun Seafood, lettuce from Satur Farms and lamb from 8 Hands Farm, all in Cutchogue. And the Morroccan-inspired seasoning cHarissa, produced by Greenport resident Earl Fultz, is a kitchen staple.
“We put it in my calamari salad — just a touch of it,” said Ettore, whose father taught him how to cook. “You can’t use a lot. That’s one of my biggest sellers.”
Other popular dishes include tagliatelle with shrimp and scallops and stuffed artichokes that Ettore prepares with broccoli rabe, fresh garlic and Pecorino Romano cheese. A seared tuna appetizer that Brian came up with is served on crispy arugula and Barbara regularly prepares cheesecake made with ricotta.
Like any good Italian restaurant, Touch of Venice also offers a meat sauce affectionately referred to by customers as “Sunday gravy.”
Mattituck attorney William Goggins, who dines frequently at the restaurant with his wife, Donna, said he always orders veal parmigiana with “extra gravy.”
“We try to go there once every other week,” Goggins said. “They’re really good. They have great service and are very attentive.”
An emphasis on hearty food isn’t Touch of Venice’s only strength. Each year since 2014, the establishment has received Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, which honors restaurants around the world with outstanding wine lists.
“It was confirmation, I guess, and validation of hard work,” said Brian, a self-taught wine connoisseur. “I spent a lot of time learning about wine.”
According to Ettore, the restaurant’s eight-page wine list has “something from every vineyard on the North Fork.” Italian selections, including lesser-known Sicilian wines, round out the offerings. Brian has also cultivated the eatery’s drink menu, with cocktails that change seasonally and a good selection of craft beers.
Brian also points to the restaurant’s prices as a foundation for its popularity. Pasta dishes range from $23 to $28, while entrées cost no more than $37.
“It doesn’t sound very sexy, but we can be in the middle,” he said. “That’s really what we strive for — to be in that moderate place.”
Reasonable prices certainly don’t mean a reduction in quality, however.
“Given that my husband [Eberhard Müller] is a four-star chef and he likes the food at Touch of Venice speaks to the caliber of food they serve,” said Paulette Satur, owner of Satur Farms and a regular customer.
So what is the Pennacchias’ secret? After nearly 30 years in business, Ettore said his philosophy is consistency, which he noted is difficult to achieve on a daily basis. To help themselves stay on track, Touch of Venice does very little catering.
“We made a deal with ourselves because something’s gotta give,” Ettore said. “We do this best. People come here for our food. We’re not just looking for the buck.”
Despite these self-imposed restrictions, Ettore and Brian still work 12-hour days. How do they manage it? Well, it isn’t always easy. But a sense of humor helps.
“You just have to,” Ettore said. “First of all, you have to enjoy it. We don’t enjoy it on a Saturday night, but other times, if we’ve got a nice little crowd in here and we get compliments, that keeps you going.”
“And you have to be a little crazy,” Brian added. “That helps.”
This story was originally published in the fall 2016 edition of northforker’s Long Island Wine Press