Like its creator, the veal meatball at Chazz: A Bronx Original is Italian at its core, yet brilliantly unique in its construction. Its presence, similar to Sergio Vitale’s, looms large over the Harbor East restaurant from which this local chef appears poised to become the next big thing on the national food scene. Restaurateur and appetizer share other traits. Both are burly, sweet, and, in Baltimore, beloved. “We knew we wanted to do a meatball,” the 6-foot-3 Vitale says. “I also knew that I didn’t want to do it on top of pasta. It’s not the way it’s served in Italy. It’s a bastardization and a line I wasn’t willing to cross. I thought we’d do veal, pork, and beef. The first chefs we worked with prepped the meatball according to my recipe, but there was some miscommunication and they used 100 percent veal. I tasted it, and I went, ‘That’s pretty good.’
“To give it a little extra oomph, I created that sausage gravy that it sits in so it would have more texture and flavor. There’s a little soy sauce in [the meatball]. Within a month or two, people were talking.”
With their mouths full. Vitale, 35, has been feeding Baltimore diners virtually his entire life. At his father Aldo’s original namesake restaurant in Fallston, he stood on a milk crate to work the register while his older brother, Alessandro, made pizzas under papa’s watchful eye. Later, they’d come to understand their strengths and passions and would reverse roles.
The family’s Little Italy restaurant, Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano, grandiose in its flavor and ambition, opened in 1998, and wowed critics. It also elevated the neighborhood’s culinary landscape—which is exactly what Sergio is doing to the pizza world at Chazz.
“You talk to Sergio and everything has to be perfect,” says Chazz Palminteri, who partnered with the Vitale brothers on the Bronx-style pizza place. “He’s just so smart. Every time we go to another restaurant and I say, ‘Hey, Serge, this is pretty good,’ we both order it, and he says, ‘I know how they did this. I’m gonna try it.’ He makes it for me, and he makes it better than we had.
“It’s like being a great actor or a great writer,” says Palminteri, who’s undeniably both. “There are certain people that are just gifted, you know?”
Behind the pizza bar at Chazz, Vitale’s making a red clam pie. The truffle slicer, which he favors to ensure his staff cuts the garlic paper-thin, has just broken, so he grabs a knife and chops it with the speed and precision of a race-car driver taking a turn. He slides the pizza into Chazz’s 900-degree coal-fired oven, and, 90 seconds later, it’s ready.
He offers it to a guest, who takes a slice.
“Just one? Obviously, you’re not Italian,” he says, breaking into a deep laugh that bellows throughout the dining room.
Spend even a few minutes with him and part of you will wish you were because Sergio Vitale makes it seem so damn fun to be Italiano.
The Vitale family table in Glen Arm, where Sergio grew up, was always crowded with food and wine, people and personalities.
“It’s something that’s part and parcel in an Italian household,” Sergio says. “Whether you’re rich or poor, in good times or bad, Italians always eat well. It’s so much a part of the culture.”
Aldo immigrated to the U.S. from Italy in 1961. Sergio was born in Baltimore and learned to speak Italian at home, where the family had what he describes as a “European relationship” with animals.
“Around Easter, we’d have lamb or goat that my father picked up from a local farmer,” he says. “He’s grazing out back, we’re feeding him. I remember the weekend before Easter, my mom would take us shopping, and my uncle would come over, who was a butcher. When I left, it was alive; when we got back, there were fillets.”
Young Sergio once got pet rabbits, but the relationship eventually soured. After one of them scratched him, his uncle showed up.
“We had delicious pappardelle alla lepre,” he says, chuckling. “We got the biggest kick from having animals around, but invariably these animals were eventually eaten.”
Sergio’s initial interest in the kitchen tended toward sweets, although his first batch of cookies left something to be desired.
“He was so proud to make these cookies for my dad,” Alessandro recalls. “But he used salt instead of sugar. We all ate them like they were the greatest thing, even though they tasted like crap.”
A later effort at tiramisu yielded decidedly different results.
“The owner of Sabatino’s used to come in on his night off,” Sergio says. “I made tiramisu one night, and he tried it and loved it. He goes, ‘I’d love for us to have this at the restaurant.’ I’m 14 at the time, and I said, ‘I’m trying to do a business with this.’ I remember him taking out a $100 bill and handing it to me and saying, ‘Buy the ingredients you need, I want some of this made for my restaurant.’”
From that beginning grew La Pasticceria Aldo, the family’s wholesale bakery that prepared and distributed desserts to customers along the East Coast.
Still, when Sergio entered Loyola College, he majored in political science. In 1995, Peter Lorenzi was appointed dean of its business school.
“The first note I got, before I even got on campus, was from Sergio, on the letterhead of the Italian Student Association, welcoming me,” he says.
Though Lorenzi never taught Sergio, the two struck up a friendship that remains intact today.
“I have him come speak to my honors class about entrepreneurship to inspire business students,” Lorenzi says. “He’s very bright, very articulate. He’s not just some sort of a slap-you-on-the-back good-old-boy. He’s got a good grasp of politics, medicine, all sorts of different things.”
Sergio was younger than some of the students he now talks to when he and Alessandro teamed up with their parents to open Aldo’s in Little Italy. (The family sold the Fallston restaurant in 1992.)
“I was a senior in college, president of the student government, and opening a restaurant at the same time,” he says. “I slept once every three days.”
The restaurant’s Roman-style décor and ambiance are due in large part to Sergio. He dedicated himself to learning every aspect of the business to the point where, a year after Aldo’s opened, he was writing columns for the American Institute of Wine and Food.
He also was busy nudging his father out the door.
“My father came in with the school of thought that he had to do everything himself,” Sergio says. “My brother and I were not in this [business] only to do one restaurant. We decided it was not sustainable if it depended on one person. So we quietly fired my father from the kitchen. We said, ‘You need to take a few days off every week so we can develop new talent.’”
Ah, the joys of a family business.
“It’s an odd family in the sense that, above all, we appreciate brutal honesty,” Sergio says. “We’re very Baltimore in that we disdain pretension. We don’t put up with bullshit, so we don’t sugarcoat things when we talk.”
Aldo, who’s semi-retired now, spends his days with a grandson and consulting with his sons on the restaurants.
“He has a good palate and good mind for the food business,” Aldo says. “I’m never satisfied until I get things perfect, and that’s exactly the way he is.”
Chazz Palminteri was lost in Little Italy’s maze of chicken parm- and beef tortellini-filled menus when he was in town in 2009 performing his one-man show, A Bronx Tale.
“I went into a couple of places and I wasn’t too pleased, and then someone said go to Aldo’s,” he says. “The food was exquisite. I started eating there every night.”
From those visits, a friendship and business partnership was born.
“[Sergio’s] an undiscovered talent,” says Palminteri, who was 41 when the film A Bronx Tale catapulted him to stardom. “He’s like Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck. He’s just not known yet.”
The Vitale brothers had been working on a more casual dining concept, and the marriage of their expertise to Palminteri’s Bronx persona was ideal.
“Chazz had always wanted to be in the restaurant business,” Sergio says. “We talked about this deal in his penthouse hotel room in Atlantic City. We wrote down the basic structure of what the deal would look like on the back of a cocktail napkin.”
In mid-June, one year and 50,000 pizzas after Chazz opened, Sergio and Alessandro are mingling in the dining room with a group of monied-looking men. They’ve just finished a two-hour meeting exploring funding for expanding the Chazz brand. Las Vegas and New York are possibilities.
Sergio is the only one not wearing a suit. His black clogs, dark jeans, black chef’s coat, and black beard suit him much better. Alessandro runs the financial side, while Sergio is in charge of staffing, training, the menu, food, and presentation.
In many ways, he’s consumed by the job. He lives above Aldo’s and bounces between the restaurants five or six times a day. There’s not much time for a social life.
“I have three girlfriends,” he jokes. “Aldo’s, Chazz, and my mother.”
Sergio claims to be a bit of a misanthrope, yet his manner with everyone he encounters—from his dishwashers to famous customers—demonstrates an instinctive understanding of human nature.
“I talk to the staff about always keeping in mind that the word restaurant shares the same root as restorative,” he says. “After people have spent time with us, they ought to leave happier, a little restored in spirit. We’re nourishing more than just their stomachs.”
Right now, he’s feeding his own. He’s discussing shedding the 30 pounds he gained leading up to the restaurant’s opening, when a waitress delivers an order of clams casino.
“I had some last week, and I thought they were too soggy on top,” he says. “We have an oven that uses three types of heat. I thought two were out of balance with the third, so I made a little adjustment.
“These are crisper,” he says, his smile disappearing just long enough to chew. “The perils of the job.”
Not even the vaunted meatball escapes examination. Last week, he tweaked it to reduce its sweetness.
Minutes before the dinner rush begins, he makes his way to the kitchen, where he grabs a fistful of spoons to sample four sauces and a soup.
What’s he tasting for?
“Perfection,” he says, “and nothing less.”