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The Pork Chop Milanese from Chef Brian Crawford at Ruggero’s in Wading River. (Courtesy Photo)

For Brian Crawford, the new executive chef at Ruggero’s Family Style Italian Restaurant in Wading River, working on the North Fork reminds him of home.

Originally from Western Massachusetts, the chef — who’s brought his culinary prowess to Chicago, San Francisco, Manhattan, Shanghai and East Hampton — loves the region.

“You go from a small town to a small city to a cornfield,” Crawford said, referring to the North Fork’s varied landscape. “I’ve spent so much time in Manhattan where you don’t get that. Here, in 10 minutes you’re at the farm and in 10 minutes you’re at the beach.”

Having recently moved to Riverhead from East Hampton, Crawford jumped at the opportunity to work on the North Fork and revamp the menu at Ruggero’s.

“The owners really gave me a chance to redefine the palate of the restaurant,” he said. “At this time in my career, it was an open page.”

Crawford’s goal for Ruggero’s was to modernize the large-plate, family style menu, both in terms of presentation and flavor. “I focus on the center of the plate,” he said. “We have a great team, but if they’re not taught how a plate is supposed to look then the plate doesn’t look how you want it to look. Things were a little too saucy, a little too liquidy. From there we went to flavors, how things taste, whether they were too dull.” 

Somewhat surprisingly, the chef also looked at Yelp reviews for feedback.

“A lot of chefs don’t like Yelp, but I don’t mind it,” he said. “To me, a Yelper is a guest that came to enjoy a dinner, and if they didn’t, then I feel bad.” 

Chef Brian Crawford of Ruggero’s Family Style Italian Restaurant. (Credit: Andrea Kiefer/East Wind Long Island)

Prior to Crawford’s tenure, Ruggero’s menu had been shortened due to COVID (like many others). Crawford wanted to reintroduce the full menu, as well as make sure that it didn’t lead off with basic items like chicken fingers.

“I didn’t come here to be here on a Saturday night and serve a chicken caesar wrap for $12,” he noted. Crawford introduced several new dishes, including tuna avocado crudo, potato gnocchi, bucatini Amatriciana and pork chop Capricciosa.

Crawford also subscribes to the slow food movement, which started in Italy.

“Slow food, in essence, is a play on words,” he explained, “slow food vs. fast food. But the theory of it is a little grander in that we’re really trying to consume local.”

The new menu makes extensive use of local ingredients, with most of the meat coming from Cow Palace in Rocky Point and fish from Mastic Seafood. Specialty pastas are house-made. Crawford and his team recently took local pumpkins and made pumpkin cheesecake.

“Food, to me, is about freshness,” Crawford explained. “When you have so much abundance in the North Fork seasonally, it just makes sense.” 

Here are a few recipes off the new menu that might inspire you to both visit Ruggero’s and to cook it at home.

Pork Chop Milanese

  • Take two 14-ounce center cut Pork Chops
  • (at Cow Palace Rocky Point)
  • Season with salt, pepper, dry oregano, and garlic salt
  • Rub with olive oil and the juice of one lemon wedge, Let sit in fridge one hour.
  • Pound each side twice with kitchen mallet to thin and tenderize chop. 
  • (Be Careful not to pound to thin)
  • Dip chops in All Purpose flour and coat thoroughly.
  • Dip Chops in egg wash batter (1 egg and ½ cup of milk whipped)
  • Then coat Chops with regular or Panko breadcrumbs.
  • Fry in pan on med high heat in ½ inch of cooking oil.
  • 4 min each side till done. 
  • (May place in oven on 225-250 after frying to make sure done or keep warm).
  • 10 min
  • Topped with Salad of baby arugula, capers, lemon zest, olive oil, tomatoes, and grated Romana
  • Over bed of marinara.

Sushi Grade Saku Tuna, fresh avocado, Atlantic salmon roe, fennel leaf, fried wantons, chili oil and sesame soy glaze. (Courtesy Photo)

Ruggero’s Tuna Crudo

Sesame soy dressing.

½ cup toasted sesame oil

Teaspoon lemon juice

½ cup rice vinegar

½ cup soy sauce

½ cup clover honey

Pinch of black pepper

Perfect for fresh tuna, salmon, or marinating shrimp/chicken

(Add 2 table spoons of olive oil and ¼ cup of orange or carrot juice to make a great salad dressing for fresh Arugula from Andrew Farms, Wading River)

October Pumpkin Cheesecake

  • In Mixer add

16 oz Philly Cream Cheese

1 cup sugar

2 tbsp. Milk

¼ cup sour cream

Zest of orange peel

1 tsp vanilla extract

4 eggs

Blend till creamy

Pour half of batter in separate bowl

To batter in mixer, add one cup or an 8 oz Libbey can of cooked pumpkin.

Add 2 tsp of pumpkin spice (or half tsp each of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, all spice)

(be careful with the cloves)

Add one more egg and blend.

  • In a premade Keebler graham cracker pie shell fill 2/3 with pumpkin filling, then top with creamy filling.  Makes two Pies 
  • Home made crust add pinch of cinnamon, two tsp sugar, and a 2 tsp melted butter to one cup of graham cracker crumbs in mix and press in 9-inch spring pan (makes one pie): for 9 inch pan cook 60 min at 325 in a standard oven. Rotate pan at 10 min and at 30 min. Check center at 50 min. To cool, turn the oven off and leave it in the oven for 15 min with the door open. Cool on table and then refrigerate for three hours. Before removing the spring run a paring knife dipped in warm water around the outside to prevent sticking.

Ruggero’s Family Style Italian Restaurant is located across from the carousel at the Shoppes at East Wind in Wading River.