When a restaurant thrives for more than twenty years, there’s usually an energetic and seriously hard-working family behind it. That’s the case with Alba’s, an elegant Italian restaurant in Port Chester, where chef-owner Ray Balidemaj and his wife, Sylvia; sons Granit and Geotar; daughter, Brikena; and nephews Nick and Alban fire up rustic and regional Italian dishes in a warm setting. We caught up with Ray to talk about his timeless cuisine and hospitality.
Where did you start? What inspired you to open a restaurant?
I’m from Montenegro and came to this country in 1985. My family owned a restaurant back home, so in high school and college I worked at the restaurant helping my family out. I grew up in the business. Back home was much more traditional, simpler and smaller. When I came here, I worked in famous restaurants in Manhattan like Angelo’s of Mulberry Street [a Little Italy landmark].
You expanded a few years ago. The space looks beautiful—tell us about it.
Four times, I’ve done a renovation. The restaurant was much smaller, a third of the size. Now there’s another dining room upstairs, a big bar with cathedral ceilings. There’s a library room for events, a martini room upstairs. We do a lot of private parties; we have three different dining rooms.
Has your menu evolved over time? What are some signature dishes?
Everyone loves the fish, the whole branzino, halibut, gnocci alla Alba, special dishes such as escargots and polenta and white truffle risotto, in season. A lot of people go with the special of the day—whatever the captain recommends. Some chefs say, “I’m doing a seasonal menu,” well, I do a daily menu. There are at least three or four appetizer specials plus chicken and fish dishes and a cart with new desserts, all made by our pastry chef. We make all our own breads and pastas.
What’s been on the menu since the beginning?
The borsetti [moon-shaped ravioli stuffed with spinach and portabella mushrooms with walnut sauce]. One time I tried to take it off and everybody said, “Why did you do that? It’s my favorite pasta!”
Tell us about your customers.
Sixty percent of my customers come once or twice a week. Many don’t even take a menu—they know about our daily specials. Our regulars include sports stars, local celebrities and top businesspeople. We’ve had a lot of politicians here. Hillary Clinton came for a fundraiser. Mario Cuomo when he was governor. I was pretty young, only twenty-eight years old. I was very proud. There are so many restaurants around here and they choose ours. Baseball players, hockey players started coming. Overnight, I felt like, I guess I’m doing something right.
400 North Main Street, Port Chester, NY