Chef Christian Petroni is well known on the Fairfield County culinary scene. But he’s quickly becoming a household name in kitchens across the country. We chat with the Food Network’s rising star about his recipe for success
Christian Petroni strides over to a table at Scopa restaurant carrying a wooden board topped with a big Italian sandwich. “Someone ordered an Italian hero?” he asks with a grin and a woman nods. “Perfect, cuz I’m right heeeere!” he says, doing a little shuffle in front of her table. The couple he’s waiting on start laughing. So do Giada De Laurentiis, Bobby Flay and everyone on the Food Network set watching this scene filmed at an Italian restaurant in Venice, California. Christian’s always cracking jokes. His ease in front of the camera mixed with his crazy talent for cooking Italian-American food led him to win Food Network Star’s fourteenth season last summer, when he and Jess Tom became the first joint winners of the show.
This was not his first time on television by any stretch, having won Chopped, judged on Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay, and also appearing on The Kitchen. In the five years since the charismatic chef opened Fortina restaurant in Armonk at age twenty-eight with his friends and partners Rob Krauss and John Nealon, he’s gone on to expand and open four more restaurants, become a Food Network star—and a father. As he talks about the holidays, his next TV stint and a major food fest he and his partners are planning, he’s showing no signs of slowing the pace. In fact, his path to success so far seems to match one of his catchphrases, “Andiamo!”
CHEF IN THE MAKING
Growing up in the Bronx, Christian’s love for food developed naturally, as he was surrounded by family and constant dinners of home-cooked Italian. Almost every day his mother would make what he calls working man’s pasta—spaghetti or rigatoni with red sauce, a little chili and parmesan—and now it’s on the menu as pastasciutto. “Meatballs were like my alarm clock,” he said on Food Network Star. “The smell of my mother’s meatballs would go out of the kitchen, up the stairs and into my nose.” He couldn’t resist heading downstairs and sneaking a few balls from the frying pan, he admits. Though his mother was an excellent cook, she wasn’t his only influence. While other kids watched Sesame Street, he was glued to cooking shows. “I wasn’t the type of kid or young, aspiring chef who hung at the apron strings in the kitchen,” Christian says. “I was into Great Chefs. TV was a big inspiration.”
Though he went to culinary school briefly, he learned most of his craft from family and working at local restaurants. His talent led him to become a young executive chef of Barcelona in Greenwich, where he met his future partners, Rob and John. Not yet thirty years old, they dreamed of opening not one bold Italian restaurant but several, he recalls, looking back on their start as restaurateurs. “Listen, maybe we were a bit full of ourselves, right?” he says, laughing. “But we always hoped this would happen because this was the goal. We always wanted to open a bunch of restaurants. We put our minds and hearts and everything else we had into it.”
Today there are Fortinas in Armonk, Rye Brook, Stamford, Brooklyn and Yonkers (where the mayor recently declared a day in his honor—October 24 is officially Christian Petroni Day). Though the locations share the same menu, some innovations make each one distinct. For instance, the rooftop of Fortina in Harbor Point, Stamford has its own identity in the warmer months as the Pizza Surf Club, with a tiki bar and menu of tacos as well as pizza slices, homemade Italian ices, spiked popsicles and whatever else the guys come up with. In Brooklyn, they started a reservation-only buffet of sorts called the Polenta Table, where the polenta is served directly on a cleaned (and sanitized) wood table and then topped with all kinds of wood-fired veggies, meatballs and other meats. Guests scoop this feast onto their plates, like the polenta potluck dinners of his childhood.
SMALL SCREEN STARDOM
Though running restaurants is his priority, Christian’s also primed for more airtime. “Right now I really want to focus on our five Fortinas, but you never know…we’re talking creatively and hopefully something will come of it,” he says, referencing his discussions with Food Network about a program. Christian’s star quality was already showing when he won Season 4 of Chopped. “It’s something that I never expected to do and I’m really enjoying it,” he says of his recent time in the limelight. “I went into every challenge with an open mind and an open heart and cooked to the best of my abilities. It’s not the easiest thing to stand in front on a panel and be judged. But it was really fulfilling to get in that kitchen to cook every day and be creative. A lot of fun.”
The fun continues with a show he filmed for the holidays as a judge on the Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge, which involved critiquing fellow chefs’ takes on the all-American feast.
Which are his favorite sides and traditions? “I’m a mashed potato fanatic, an aficionado of sorts. My mother makes them fantastically,” he says. “Sometimes I like to cook them in the style of the late, great Joël Robuchon, which is equal parts potato and butter. Always delicious, very light,” he says with a laugh. For the Thanksgiving show, he’ll go head-to-head with another chef in a turkey-carving competition; and in one episode he judges five chefs’ attempts to reinvent sides. He admits that, for him, simpler dishes are sometimes best: “Growing up my mother always made two stuffings, mostly because of me and my cousin Warren. One stuffing was very fancy with whatever bread she used, raisins and sausage, this and that and all these great herbs, and it was really beautiful. The other was Stove Top. And that was my favorite. It’s a guilty pleasure.”
These days Christian is passing his love of food on to his fifteen-month-old son, Beau. No kiddie menus for this little one, who was playing with his toy food truck while we spoke. “Beau eats what we eat, and that’s very important to us. Whatever we’re cooking that night is what he has for dinner,” he says. “When we were doing baby food, I was getting beautiful squash from Sport Hill Farm [in Easton] and other local produce and pureeing it. Now that he’s old enough for big-boy food, he pretty much eats everything.” After a busy season of filming out of state, Christian cherishes time at home in Westchester with his wife, Sherry, and Beau, cooking them scrambled eggs every morning. He says he loves that feeling of coming home from a long day; “it’s like you’re seeing them for the first time every day.”
Besides his day-to-day restaurant work, he’s currently in event-planning mode. He and the Fortina team have dreamed up plenty of events in the past, from a free pig roast customer-appreciation party to a Drag Queen Bingo night, but this one is bigger. It’s called Parmapalooza. He explains, “It’s a parmesan-themed food festival that Fortina is going to be spearheading in the spring. There’s not many details we’re ready to share at the moment but it’s going to be big, a collaboration like no one has ever seen in Westchester and Fairfield counties.” He’s been lining up vendors and presenters, announcing them on Instagram, and chances are good that the event will draw people from farther afield, especially the Bronx. During the filming of his Food Network Star pilot, Chef Sunny Anderson encouraged Christian to “bring it home for the Bronx.” And he’s still doing that. His response: “I’m gonna rep, I’m gonna rep hard.”