The bright new dining room at T&J Restaurant and Pizzeria’s 10 Pearl St. location is more than twice the size of the one at the eatery’s original site.
Richard Abel|Westmore News
The bright new dining room at T&J Restaurant and Pizzeria’s 10 Pearl St. location is more than twice the size of the one at the eatery’s original site. Richard Abel|Westmore News
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T&J, what can I say? After 26 years, it’s a staple in the Port Chester/Rye Brook community. And now that the Italian restaurant known for its delicious Neapolitan family recipes, traditional and gourmet pizza, homemade pasta and warm hospitality has moved a block away to spanking new quarters in a newly constructed building with twice the space, it is attracting a commensurate size crowd. Many are now coming out to eat rather than settling for takeout from the old place because they didn’t want to wait for a table.

Service continues to be friendly and efficient but not formal, food is first class but not elegant, portions are huge and prices are reasonable.

My husband has called T&J Restaurant and Pizzeria, which was named T&J Pizza & Pasta at its 227 Westchester Ave. location, the new Sawpit. Old timers will remember The Sawpit as one of the better Italian restaurants in Port Chester that became a local hangout for politicians and other residents. The Sawpit was located on South Regent Street in the space that is now empty but last housed Arrosto. My in-laws went there every Saturday night for many years and I recall eating many a Saturday lunch there. It is where I as a then-outsider from Connecticut was introduced to gorgonzola cheese salad.

“I hope we can duplicate their success,” said John Ruggiero, one of the owners of T&J, in an onsite interview.

On our first Friday night visit to the new T&J at 10 Pearl St., the former location of the Rye Town Office Building which once housed the Port Chester village offices as well, we saw so many people we knew from Port Chester, Rye Brook and even White Plains, it was like old home week. I don’t recommend going there if you don’t want to see anyone you know.

What’s not to like at this new spot—larger, brighter quarters, tables more spread out, some additional amenities and the same terrific food and service. Granted, it’s not as cozy because the dining room now seats 110 with 14 seats up front in the pizzeria while the old place had a total capacity of 55. But now you have a good view of all the customers and you can make reservations.

After months of construction, the attractive office building was completed with T&J occupying the first floor as planned. The family-run restaurant opened on Oct. 24, had a grand opening on Nov. 9 where County Executive Rob Astorino presented the owners with a proclamation and is heading into its fourth week.

“We’re very pleased,” said Ruggiero. “We feel very fortunate and blessed to have this wonderful opportunity.” He and his partner, Ray Sassano, his cousin’s husband, were presented with the chance to move to a larger space a few years ago when Dominic Neri, CEO of Neri’s Bakery, bought the old Rye Town Office Building and approached them about occupying space in a new office building that would take its place. “He said we had outgrown the space,” said Ruggiero. “One thing led to another and here we are. He was instrumental in helping us get this done.”

Neri started as a customer, he said, and “through the years we developed a strong friendship. It was clear he wanted us to join in the project.”

What’s new?

Besides the larger dining room and pizzeria, the new location has a patio seating 60 on the side of the building facing the St. Peter’s Church parking lot “which hopefully will be a very popular amenity for our customers in the summertime,” said Ruggiero. On Westchester Avenue the regular customers congregated at the few tables set up on the sidewalk out front, but there was not the outdoor dining this attractive stone patio will afford.

In addition, there is free parking in the lot across the street, which Ruggiero said is key. It is shared with the Neri’s Bakery retail store and at times will not be large enough to accommodate all the customers, especially when the office building is fully rented, but previously all parking was paid on the street or in the adjacent municipal lot until 9 p.m., so it’s a big improvement.

T&J now also has a party room on the fifth floor of the office building which will seat up to 100 people served buffet style since the kitchen is on the first floor. It was not yet completed when I viewed it last Saturday, but I was impressed by its warmth created by wood and earth tones on the walls and it even has its own patio from which a view of Long Island Sound and the skyline of Port Chester is visible. This room will be ready in time for the first event which is booked for Dec. 4.

Ruggiero said he hopes one of the next village election night celebrations in March will be held there.

A prep room in the basement is another asset. That’s where Grace Vitiello, Ruggiero’s aunt and Sassano’s mother-in-law, and his mother, Filomena Ruggiero, make pasta once or twice a week using a pasta machine imported from Italy. “Mom and Grace are having a lot of fun with that,” said Ruggiero. “Eventually all of the pasta will be homemade. We have not reached that point yet.” So far they are making pappardelle, ravioli, spaghetti and linguine. At the old space the two Italian grandmothers, who are at the heart and soul of the T&J tradition which they started with their husbands, just made ravioli and gnocchi by hand as well as four different types of lasagna.

While T&J continues to serve only beer and wine—state law does not allow a full liquor license because of the restaurant’s proximity to a church—there is now a small bar with seats for four where you can hang out with a glass of wine or house made sangria (both red and white) or wait for a table. Here there is also beer on tap—something new—and more wines are now available by the glass.

In its new location, T&J is offering seven flavors of gelato and a coffee drink called crema del café which is like soft espresso ice cream or an espresso slush depending on the consistency.

“My mom went to Italy a couple years ago,” said Ruggiero. “She said that was the new trend, you’ve got to get it.” So they did.

Same menu

Besides these enhancements, the menu remains the same and there are absolutely no plans to change it. The kitchen is under the direction of 15-year head chef Raul Ponce while takeout chef Pablo Urbina of Port Chester has been with T&J since day one 26 years ago when Jerry and Grace Vitiello of Hawthorne founded the restaurant with another of John Ruggiero’s uncles, Tony, who formed the T in T&J. When Tony’s health failed, they were joined by Filomena and Ray Ruggiero of the Bronx. All are still involved except Ray who died two years ago.

T&J’s biggest sellers, according to John Ruggiero, are Chicken Scarpariello, Penne alla Vodka and Shrimp Buon Gustaio, the latter a special made with shrimp, mussels and clams in garlic and oil over capellini with seasoned bread crumbs.

“It’s a special, but we can make it anytime,” said Ruggiero, who stressed that “as long as we have the ingredients, we will make it. If it is a dish you have had before and want it, we will make it.”

I’ve had both the chicken and penne dishes and can attest to their exceptional flavor and consistency. Once over the past 26 years I recall the Penne alla Vodka being too salty or somehow not just right, but in general I agree with Ruggiero that “we make a really good vodka sauce.” The shrimp also sounds exceptional and I plan to order it real soon.

Other Italian staples I can’t get enough of and have probably ordered hundreds of times for takeout are the tortellini soup ($5 or $7), the large size being enough for two meals, the garden salad with gorgonzola cheese ($7), which comes with red peppers roasted in-house, olives, tomatoes and just the perfect amount of their wonderful house dressing, penne with broccoli in garlic and oil ($12) and linguine with red or white claim sauce ($14).

Friday night dinner for two

On my Friday night visit three weeks in at the new location, I called first and was told it was first come, first served for parties of two. My husband and I chatted with people we knew and then sat at the bar sipping sangria and beer while waiting for a table.

A basket of Italian bread from Neri’s Bakery, of course, and a few small pieces of delicious focaccia topped with tomatoes and garlic came right away and went perfectly with everything we ordered.

I enjoyed the stuffed mushrooms ($10) which brought four good-sized caps stuffed with chopped meat and bread crumbs with a mound of broccoli rabe in the middle, all covered in a tasty pink sauce. Although cooked greens aren’t my favorite, I did give the broccoli rabe a try, and it wasn’t bad.

My husband was delighted to see anchovies with roasted red peppers ($10) on the special menu which also came with black and green olives. Anchovies are not something I care for, but he was wild about this appetizer.

I was encouraged to order the ravioli Filomena had made that day stuffed with asparagus, sweet sausage and broccoli rabe ($20). I substituted pink sauce for the Alfredo sauce listed on the special menu at the suggestion of our server when I worried about Alfredo being too heavy. While I usually go for cheese ravioli, my attitude was why not opt for something fresh and different when you have the chance. I got six large ravioli and took three home, loving them for two meals.

My husband chose the seafood salad ($16) for his main course which brought a mélange of shrimp, scungilli, calamari , tomatoes, onions, celery, olives and lettuce which I found fresh-tasting but he felt was bland.

A glass of Malbec ($9) and a beer ($6) complemented our meal.

For dessert, we wanted to take advantage of what was homemade—so the amaretto cake it was—a good-sized piece of cake with nuts, amaretto sauce on the plate and a dollop of whipped cream made for a heavenly end to the meal. An espresso with a bottle of anisette brought to the table and a cappuccino went delightfully with this sweet treat.

With the dessert and coffee on the house, our check came to $76.50.

Besides the pasta, Grace and Filomena also make three of the desserts—the amaretto cake, ricotta cheesecake (amazingly light and sprinkled with powdered sugar) and tiramisu.

Rosie, our server, is among the longtime staff at T&J. Down to earth and delightful, she said she had worked there on and off for 14 years starting when she was 21.

Staff makes you feel at home

Besides Rosie, the gregarious Flavia has waited tables at T&J for 25 years, Raymond a mere 15.

“There is very little turnover,” said John Ruggiero, noting that longtime chef Pablo keeps the cuisine consistent.

With the larger dining room, bar and pizzeria, John and Ray have hired seven new people in addition to the old timers.

Besides the staff, Grace, 73, and Filomena, 70, circulate among the guests greeting every one over the course of their meal and making them feel welcome as they have done for years.

“Grace and my mom are our foundation,” said Ruggiero. “They laid our foundation. We rely on them so much. We can never pay them back.” With more tables and increased business, these sweet ladies are working harder than ever.

In addition, John’s wife Veronica and Ray’s wife Gina interact with customers, hostess on weekends and provide technical support. Veronica works on the website and Gina does payroll.

Bright, classy decor

Except for the dough maker, which they dragged over from their old location, everything at 10 Pearl St. is new. Michael Rino from an architectural firm in Mamaroneck designed the whole building. The kitchen and dining room were a collaborative effort among John Ruggiero, Ray Sasson and Dom Neri. “Our wives also had a big hand,” said Ruggiero.

“When you have been in business as long as us, since 1990, it is great to build a restaurant from scratch,” he said. “Not a lot of people have that opportunity, so we are really blessed with that.” Ruggiero, who lives in Mt. Vernon, also has two uncles in the restaurant business even longer, one since 1954 and the other since 1985.

The attractive front decorated with hay and pumpkins and the brightness of both the pizzeria and the dining room because of all the windows are striking.

The variety of pizzas available by the slice is nicely displayed on glass shelves and comes out of one large pizza oven surrounded by fake brick.

Moving from the pizzeria into the dining room, wooden signs on the wall read “grateful” and “thankful,” there is a beautiful wooden carved floral sculpture on one wall, then the small bar with four stools that match the chairs in the dining room.

The dining room is open and spacious with tables not on top of each other. What remains from the old dining room are the adorable photos of Grace and Filomena’s nine grandchildren as toddlers eating pizza, pasta, sitting in a pot or donning a chef’s hat that hang on nearly every wall.

A metal sculpture, an oil painting that looks 3D, and two globed candles also adorn the walls, all painted a light beige.

The tile floor looks textured in various shades of brown and beige.

Wood tables for two and four are set with white napkins accented with brown stripes and matching chairs with x-shaped backs and soft yellowish beige seats.

A unique feature is the light in the center of the dining room around an inset ceiling that subtly changes color over time.

Hours

T&J remains open in both the pizzeria and dining room from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Secret to success and challenges

So far the new restaurant has been well received. “We are very appreciative that Mr. Neri had the confidence in us to extend this offer,” said Ruggiero. “There are still some kinks, especially on Saturday night we are a little overwhelmed with how busy it gets. Otherwise it has been running smoothly.”

Coming up with the right formula on staffing remains a challenge for John and Ray, who share the management duties.

At the old restaurant each one worked 10-10 every other day. “Here until we get the right formula both of us are working every day,” said John, who added that they love each other like brothers and even though they’re both different, “we’re both casual” and “we stay even keel.”

What is the secret to their success? “We try to keep things simple—great food, great prices, good customer service,” said John. “We make every customer feel special.”

Meanwhile, Grace’s husband Jerry owns the building at 227 Westchester. “We will rent the store or sell the building,” Grace said. “We take it day by day.”