Christian Petroni wears his heart on his sleeve.
The chef behind Stamford’s Fortina restaurant has tattoos from his shoulder to his wrist, displaying love for his family, and the land and food that have bound them together.
The warmth that Petroni’s parents and grandparents instilled in him has been passed along to the customers of the growing Fortina mini-empire, with three restaurants (Stamford, Armonk, N.Y., and Rye Brook, N.Y.) and counting. A Yonkers, N.Y., site is about to open and a Brooklyn, N.Y., Fortina is set for next year.
Pizza is at the center of the chef’s food world, but he is always ready to improvise other dishes for his customers, depending on what the day might bring him.
“A chef might have picked up something good at a farmers market or a great customer brings us the bounty from their garden,” Petroni tells me at the start of another day in Stamford. “Last week, someone brought beautiful pumpkin blossoms in. I made a pasta with panna (cream), saffron … and the blossoms. We made 10 orders, sold them and you’ll never see it again.”
Petroni likes making these here-today/gone-tomorrow one-offs for his regulars.
“Every now and again one of them will make it into the rotation. It’s not that I’m always trying to find new things, but I want to create unique experiences,” he says.
Among those unique events are the surprise pop-up dinners Petroni likes to share with his many social media followers.
“We’ve been fortunate to acquire a wood-burning pizza truck, so we can go anywhere. It’s a lot of fun because we don’t overthink it,” he says of sudden visits like a recent one to Hoodoo Brown BBQ in Ridgefield.
Petroni is from New York City, but his restaurant career really took off in Connecticut at Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurant in Greenwich (now closed). It was while he was working there that Petroni’s fame quotient soared after winning the top $10,000 prize on the Food Network show, “Chopped.” Since then he has been a recurring judge on the show.
The chef-owner believes the secret of a successful restaurant can be boiled down to one word — “culture.”
“It’s the culture of a restaurant. The way we interact as a team. The way we do things. Having a polite discourse with everyone: the staff, the guy who delivers the fish, our customers,” he says.
The “culture” of Fortina extends to the design of the restaurants, which Petroni does himself. The Stamford site is in a vast, almost industrial space in the Harbor Point development made welcoming with unique touches, like an added mezzanine, handmade wood banquettes (built by his dad), the huge hanging sculptural light fixtures and surprising bits of eye-catching decor.
My chat with Petroni was at a table under a striking oversized picture of an octopus that he took at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. He obviously wants to impress visitors as soon as they walk in, but he doesn’t want any new customer to feel intimidated.
“I have a theory that people gave up the idea of stuffy restaurants in 2008,” the chef says of the financial collapse that year. “We all wanted high-end-level food and service, but where you feel comfortable. I had a meal at a great place recently — Eleven Madison Park (in the Flatiron District of Manhattan) — and I like that you can now go into a restaurant like that anywhere in the world in jeans.”
The Fortina menu is packed with Italian salads and pasta dishes, but pizza is at the heart of the restaurant, running a wide gamut from classic margherita to Petroni’s “Luigi Bianco” (with burrata, robiolona, Parmesan and black truffle).
“It’s my canvas,” the chef says of taking 12 inches of stretched-out dough and deciding what to do with it. “We all love pizza and there are so many challenging ways, creatively, to come up with new ways to make them.
“I have pizza everywhere I go — good pizza, bad pizza. New York is pizza central, and New Haven I would call a pizza mecca.”
Petroni loves social media, but admits it can be a challenge when it comes to crowd-sourcing reviewer sites like Yelp.
“That’s an added pressure (because) you want to get better every day. Personally, I haven’t looked at Yelp in six years, but my managers and partners (Rob Kraus and John Nealon) monitor it. As John always says, you don’t look for what you’re good at, you try to see what you suck at. … It can sting, but it is important to use it as an opportunity when you find something valid.”
So far the Fortina brand has been able to expand without any loss of Petroni’s personal touches on the food and the atmosphere.
When I ask him how many restaurants he thinks he could run, the chef pauses and says, “You have to look within and only do what you can handle.”