I have a confession to make: I’m a little jealous of the guys at Fortina. In less than one year, owners Christian Petroni, John Nealon and Rob Krauss opened their dream Italian dining room in Armonk, made it a behemoth hit, saw chef Petroni cook at the James Beard House with some of the biggest names in local cuisine (making it one of the most raved about food events of spring) and announced two new Fortina locations. And they have a hell of a good time doing it.
“I wake up so happy about coming to work every day it should be illegal,” says Petroni in his best Bronx-born deadpan.
If I woke up and walked into Fortina every day, I’d be pretty thrilled myself. Killer blistered pizza, Negronis on tap, fried meatballs and filthy rich burrata? Si, per favore! But the Fortina frontmen are winning at life for more than being daily witnesses to the tastes and aromas they serve up. They raise hospitality to a new dimension by cultivating for themselves, their crew and customers the convivial culture that’s the not-so-secret to their success.
Known by monikers CP, Jackets and Baby Gem (“like Baby Gem lettuce”), Petroni, Nealon and Krauss, a trifecta of tongue-in-cheek tomfoolery, defy rigid front-of-house standards and treat everyone like a houseguest.
“We don’t look at this as much as our restaurant as much as we pretend it’s our living room,” says Nealon.
It’s not too far from the truth considering the guys are practically brothers. Nealon and Krauss are best friends from high school. Nealon was GM to Petroni’s executive chef at Barcelona in Greenwich. Petroni and Krauss share a bachelor pad. And like any young, fun-loving buddies they have this comedic chemistry that hatches hilarity from the dining room floor to their Facebook page. Think videos of absurd dance parties with virtual robots and food glamour shots with lusty captions like “Hey pizza, maybe we should go someplace quiet” or “Affogato, I honestly have no desire to wear clothes around you.” They remind me of a culinary version of SNL-spawned trio The Lonely Island.
“We never aim to sell on Facebook,” says Nealon. “But do we get significant marketing for being silly? Sure.”
Cameos feature staff, a group of “like-minded professionals who get the way we think,” says Nealon. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
A palpable camaraderie permeates the floor, a byproduct of employing longtime friends and folks who are just plain friendly. Take the team who steer Fortina’s beverage program – Coby Blount of the burly beard who’s a house favorite; sweet Marita Nezaj, who doesn’t forget a face; and bartender Jill Rotanelli, who effortlessly draws a crowd. More than simply nice (which can come off as stiff), they’re warm, lubricating even the most packed house with pleasantries and smiles along with their tempting libations. (Don’t miss their grapefruit-tinged summer darling The Bearded Lady.)
Also brewing their gregarious air is the team’s daily huddle, an hour of think-tank, rally time which, considering their dynamic, could appear a lot like goofing off.
“We pay our whole front of the house staff – which is a lot of people – to be able to sit down in the dining room every day and not work for an hour,” says Petroni.
In his self-effacing way, he turns to Nealon when it hits him that most businessmen wouldn’t deem that the brightest move from a payroll perspective. But considering their rapid expansion, it’s evident their methods pay dividends.
Even design choices keep Fortina feeling personal and comfortable with just enough polish, like high-shine wall-to-wall wood and servers whose flannelled attire is casual while crisp. And in true living room form, the space is a reflection of its owners – massive chalk drawings by Nealon’s aunt, Deidre Mannix; a custom-made outdoor “Vibe Table” (if you need to know the purpose, it’s not for you); a film reel of their favorites like “Tommy Boy,” “My Blue Heaven” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” that plays in the bar and dining room; and a mixtape of tunes piped in at a volume Nealon says is fit for “maybe saying a couple words you’re not allowed to in church.”
And just as Italy inspires Petroni’s take on homestyle classics like pork braciole in Sunday sauce and burrata made by a Puglia native, the motherland also plays a big role in Fortina’s character and name. “La Fortina” is what Petroni’s family call a fortress on their property in Ponza, an island due west of Naples where Petroni spent his summer vacations with Uncle Louie. If you’ve been to Fortina, you know Uncle Louie, too. He’s their now-iconic mascot – bespeckled and shirtless – whose photograph (shot by Petroni in Ponza) keeps him eternally sipping espresso above the kitchen. Ponza is also where Wes Anderson filmed “The Life Aquatic,” whose antihero Steve Zissou, played by Bill Murray, is captured in the dining room.
Laced with character, the space resonates its own special charisma much like the owners themselves. The outcome fits the bill whether you’re looking for the social scene, a family night or a go-to hangout.
“We don’t want to be the best restaurant, we want to be everybody’s favorite,” says Petroni. “The good food is almost icing on the cake.”
Ask 10 people their Fortina favorite and get 10 different answers. Pitting dish against incredible dish, the menu begs repeat visits to work through each one while your inner creature of habit whispers “more burrata.”
The menu reads of Italian fineries like prime dry-aged bistecca fiorentina and plates like “gabagool” and the spicy “meat-ah-ball” thrown in the mix in case you weren’t already having fun. Dishes depart the kitchen impeccably thanks to Petroni – strapped with laurels including a win on “Chopped” (if you’re in to that sort of thing) – and wicked talented chef Jodi Bernhard.
“With us being a bunch of knuckleheads, it helps to have an adult in the building,” says Nealon. “Jodi is our rock.”
The kitchen stars two wood-burning ovens flame-licking every food group from indulgently unctuous marrow (served as antipasto or on the funghi pie) to the fresh catch, seasonal veggies and even pineapple for the rum-laden Holiday in Cambodia.
Then, of course, there’s the crispy Neapolitan-style pizza, whose ever-fickle dough formulation Petroni says “only managed to shave 10 years off my life to get right.” (Undisclosed details include the type of rare Italian flour they import and aging time.) Perched at tables on tomato cans, the pizzas rest at the ideal height for blissful nostrils to take in whiff after intoxicating whiff. Greatest hits include The Luigi Bianco, a beefed up white pizza with black truffle named for Petroni’s best friend and “pizza czar,” totes ma’goats that’s garlicky goat cheesy with caramelized onions, and the chili-zipped and honey-kissed tenderoni.
Pies are a main attraction though pastas also earn praise with distinct, delicious flavor combinations like spaghetti with sesame and lemon; pici with chili and smoked bacon; or paccheri with marble-sized veal meatballs in a béchamel “a la vodka” that gets finished in the flames.
Since there can never be too much of a good thing – when it comes to Fortina, I can’t help but over order – two new locations set to open in fall (Rye Brook) and spring (Stamford) are bound to rev up the buzz well into the foreseeable future.
“It won’t be cookie-cutter by any means,” says Nealon, who says he’s most excited to “have this whole new restaurant to add talent to.”
What we don’t know: Which one of their “favorite chef friends” will (wo)man the new kitchens. What we do know: They will be called Fortina. They will rotate staff. They will be amazing.
Adds Nealon, “There is a strong chance there will be another Bill Murray in there.”
Fortina is at 17 Maple Ave. in Armonk. For more, call 914-273-0900 or visit fortinapizza.com.