MORRISANIA — Luigi Ghidetti, the executive chef at Porto Salvo, hails from Terracina, a seaside city south of Rome, and draws his inspiration from Italian port taverns.
That much is evident in the restaurant's nautical theme, which includes a 1921 replica diver's helmet above the register, port holes in the wall, a ship engine telegraph, a captain’s wheel, fisherman ship lanterns and wooden buoys.
Now docked in the South Bronx, Ghidetti and his life and business partner Mark Lu not only want to bring a bit of Italy to the mainland, they want new transplants and South Bronx natives alike to come enjoy it with them.
Featuring a menu of seafood-centric Southern Italian dishes in an area dotted with delis, churches, and residential housing, the owners are trying to sell not just food, but an experience.
There's no TV or Wi-Fi, so the restaurant implores its patrons to "pretend it is 1991 and talk to the beautiful person across from or next to you," share small plates and imbibe on the quality but inexpensive wines. There is also a full cocktail menu and local draft beers on offer.
Main courses, like the Tagliatelle alla Bolognese (homemade pasta with peasant veal ragù), are priced at $16. Customers can enjoy oysters ordered off of the raw menu and indulge in homemade desserts like the Basil Crème Brulee.
A key ingredient to the vibe is what Lu likes to call the "human element."
Take, for instance, The Defender's Beer Shot, a double-fisted happy hour homage to the public defenders who work nearby. It is just one example of how Porto Salvo, located at 424 E. 161st St., tailors its offerings to its customers.
There is outdoor seating for the warmer months and a lively bar scene inside. Happy hour spans from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. to accommodate both lawyers who get off on the early side and those who live nearby and don't get home until later. Bartenders greet customers and introduce them to neighbors they've never met and the owners tweak the menu to better fit the tastes of local palates.
Lu, who is also involved in real estate, owns property and lives in the area, says it's no mistake that they pick neighborhoods in transition for their ventures.
“We tend to like those areas because we tend to feel like the people in those areas do deserve quality ingredients, quality food and with a nice ambiance," he said.
From a business standpoint, these neighborhoods also provide some stability in terms of rental costs, but part of being good at the restaurant business means sometimes looking past the bottom line and just giving people what they want, he said.
"They come to have a great experience, which includes food, includes drinks, but also includes connecting with people," Lu said.