When Biagio Barone opened his restaurant Biagio’s Osteria in 2005 in Stratford’s Ryder’s Landing shopping plaza, he envisioned it as a stepping stone for the proverbial bigger and better. There was no aggressive marketing campaign to call attention to the Italian eatery upon its opening.
“My plan was to move down into lower Fairfield County and then into New York,” he recalled.
To Barone’s surprise, customer praise filtered to a restaurant critic at The New York Times. The reviewer’s glowing praise for Biagio’s Osteria placed Barone into the dining scene spotlight and turned his off-the-beaten-path establishment into a must-visit destination.
“When the article came out it was crazy for a couple of years,” he said. “Maybe 5% or 10% of our customers are from Stratford. We pull a lot of people from lower Fairfield County. We get a lot of people who come down from the Hartford area. If it wasn’t for that New York Times article, I would never have been here.”
Barone initially pursued a computer science degree and began his career doing computer engineering for the Stew Leonard’s supermarket chain. But after a year behind the computer screen, he recognized he was in the wrong field.
“I’ve been cooking since I was a little boy,” he continued. “I got my inspiration from my father and my grandmother. We would travel to Italy every year for the summer since I was 6 or 7 and until I was 16 or 17. I was always just blown away by the food.”
Barone’s father ran a pizza parlor in the space that Biagio’s Osteria occupies, and his initial setting only accommodated 20 patrons. He has since expanded into the adjacent spaces and can now sit 150. Working from the recipes he learned during his summers in Italy, Barone sought to create a European-style intimacy in his business.
“Our menu is small and changes more often,” he explained. “We’re not going crazy with 30 different dishes on the menu.
“People like simplicity in a dish. They don’t want crazy decorations anymore. They don’t want to look at it — they want to eat it.”
Among the most popular meals is the zucca e pinoli, made on a pasta machine Barone purchased in Italy, stuffed with butternut squash, goat cheese and a pinoli cream sauce. Patrons also clamor for his veal ossobuco, but only the early arrivals at the restaurant get to enjoy it.
“I run out of it every night,” he said. “It’s a dish that we make daily, but it takes four or five hours to make. It simmers very slowly and when it’s gone it’s gone. People get upset, but I tell them I can’t make it two or three days in advance because it won’t be right. We make 25 or 30 of them and that’s where it goes.”
Barone takes charge of the ingredient gathering, shopping four days a week. “It’s a lot more work on that back end, but the food comes out fresh,” he said.
Barone said he is toying with the idea of following the Italian approach of foregoing traditional menus and opting with the chef’s recommendation for the day’s meal. He has been approached by television cooking competition shows for guest appearances, but he has not been comfortable with the formats presented to him. If there is a camera that Barone loves, it is the cell phone camera that his patrons use to share their meals on social media.
As for those long-ago plans of moving into the larger markets, Barone is glad that he let go of that idea.