Zurlo’s namesake offers food and fellowship at new Italian bistro
On its website, the new Italian bistro, Zurlo’s, proudly claims, “featuring Enzo Zurlo.” It is, to say the least, boastful. Then again, this is an Italian restaurant. So rather than offering suppositions to the validity of their claims, perhaps a better story can be found in the food and the words of Chef Enzo Zurlo.
Zurlo, a first generation Italian-American, grew up in White Plains, N.Y., though, if you ask him, he grew up in his uncle’s pizzeria. For the better part of his teens, he learned basic culinary skills like knife cuts and sauté. In his 20s, he was offered a soccer scholarship to Iona, where he studied accounting. This, however, was not his road.
“I couldn’t picture myself in an office,” said Zurlo. “I’m a people person. I love to make people happy. I like to make them smile. I like to interact and meet people. I’m a hands-on guy.”
Zurlo eventually married and bought a house in Omaha, where his wife’s family lived, in 2005. Shortly thereafter, he was hired on at Bianco, helping to develop their menu, which became very popular in the area. Then, Zurlo and his wife divorced, which, in his words, affected the attention he could give to the young restaurant.
“I wasn’t right in the head,” said Zurlo. “I just wasn’t focused. I just wasn’t pulling my weight.”
Zurlo and Bianco parted ways, and he took a position at Stokes downtown to collect himself. When Bianco closed its doors last year, it affected not only Zurlo, having helped foster the concept, but also two loyal patrons and friends of Zurlo’s: soon-to-be owners Steve and Lori Stangl.
“They’d come in five, six times a week,“ said Zurlo. “Steve and I would golf together. They’re just a great, great couple. Steve called me as a joke, and it ended up turning into reality. It was funny: Steve always said to me that I needed to own a restaurant, my own place.”
And so, he did. Just three short months later, Zurlo’s was born on the namesake’s food, his relationship and care for his guests, and a vision that he and others believed in. It wasn’t smooth, however, as even “soft openings,” such as theirs last March, have their jagged sides: Zurlo and his staff – many rehired from Bianco – weathered a faulty refrigerator and computer system.
“We had to re-prep everything that morning,” said Zurlo. “The computer system came back online at 5:30 p.m. There was a two-hour wait for tables. Roughly 300 people came through from 6 to 9. I was well prepared, but there was nothing soft about it.”
Zurlo, and his staff, survived, something Zurlo himself attributes to the dedication of his hand-selected crew, and, let’s face it, a little blind faith.
“I honestly say that somebody upstairs is looking out for me right now,” said Zurlo. “This is something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time, almost all my life. The menu was already in my head.”
Zurlo’s menu, even for traditional Italian favorites, is geared towards spring, with thoughtful presentation and pairings. For a starting course, I sampled the salmon crostinis ($10), served with spinach, herbed goat cheese, and roasted garlic. A very clean, light bite, indicative of many of Zurlo’s app offerings. The seared duck breast ($21) was an excellent entrée, notably for its pairing of the blueberry and balsamic reduction sauce with the intriguingly delicious saffron and herbed polenta cakes, served grilled. The pesto salmon ($18) screams spring: pan-seared and brick oven-roasted salmon steak, topped with pesto and heirloom tomato bruschetta, served with sautéed spinach and roasted red potatoes. Flaky, hearty, yet light, with bright colors and a rich flavor.
The rockstar of the meal was the Chicken Gilda ($16) – pan-seared chicken breast, topped with Sardinella prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, asparagus, and a light Marsala sauce. Served with potato croquettes (think “fried mashed potatoes”), when it arrives, two things pop into your head: “That is a mess of good food,” and “I’m not going to finish it.” And you’d be wrong: the “perfect bite” of chicken, ham, cheese, asparagus, and sauce is so balanced, you can’t stop tasting. The potato croquettes, by the way, should be illegal; thankfully, they aren’t.
I also sampled his tiramasu (“which every Italian restaurant needs. Just like my mom’s, with a little more liquor,” said Zurlo) and his chocolate espresso fudge cake, served with raspberry coulis and fresh whipped cream ($5 and $6, respectively). Both were perfect portions for two, executed very well, and provided a decadent finish to a sensational meal. Of course, what would you expect from Zurlo, the mastermind and goodwill ambassador of a fine establishment?
“I love what I do,” said Zurlo. “Not many people can be happy to go to work. Fortunately for me, I’m one of those guys.”
Zurlo is equal parts humble, honest and hospitable, and his crew seems to share his excitement. His food and subsequent successful opening reminds us that, for those truly inspired, good can come out of anything. Or, in Italian, “chi la dura, la vince.” (“He who perseveres, wins.”)