Photographs by Bob Rozycki.
Valerio Morano Sagliocco is a charming landscape specialist whose enthusiasm for food may exceed even his fondness for gardens and travel.
“I love what I do, but food is a passion,” said the director and principal designer of Morano Landscape Garden Design in Mamaroneck and co-owner of Ridgeway Garden Center in White Plains.
That passion is reflected in Lago — a new restaurant located appropriately enough on Lake Street in the Silver Lake section of Harrison that serves Southern Italian cuisine designed to evoke Sagliocco’s Calabrese and Neapolitan roots. (The family has a farm in Calabria — the region that’s the “toe” of the boot-shaped country — which Sagliocco has been visiting since childhood.)
“You have to put the best possible cuisine out there,” said Sagliocco, a partner in the restaurant with Sal Luciano. “This (food) has very little fat content. It’s simple, and everything is very clean. A lot of chefs are just putting chemicals together.”
Instead, Sagliocco adds, Salvatore Esposito — named one of the top Italian chefs by the James Beard Foundation — prepares real food.
The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. We began with the Salumi e Formaggi Misto, a selection of cured meats, cheeses, olives and peppers, which along with the zesty focaccia and a delicious, warm Italian bread from the Bronx both satisfied and whetted the appetite.
Next came a trio of tasty, colorful salads — beets on a bed of whipped Caprino cheese and arugula; lightly dressed field greens dotted with blackberries and topped with shaved cheese and fennel; and imported buffalo mozzarella, roasted sweet peppers and heirloom tomatoes.
This was followed by melt-in-your-mouth Neapolitan meatballs in a sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes imported from Calabria. (The tomatoes added a natural sweetness to the sauce’s traditional tang, as they did to the Margherita pizza that was yet another delightful side dish.) We then sampled the Wagyu Beef Burger — rich beef top with crispy prosciutto, caramelized onions, melted Fontina, tomatoes and a pepper coulis sauce.
By now lunch was taking on the epic quality of “Babette’s Feast” and “My Dinner With Andre.” Maybe it was the Pappardelle Lago accented by various mushrooms and a cream sauce, which restaurant manager Louie Kuqi prepared tableside in a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano. Or the Zabaglione custard that he flamed with Hennessy Cognac tableside.
Maybe it was the place itself, with its coffered copper ceiling, brick wainscoting, white walls and reclaimed, fire-treated wood from Ridgeway Garden Center. Sagliocco says he conceptualized it, while interior designer Vanessa DeLeon made it happen.
The décor underscores the warm, familial atmosphere of Lago, which is evident right down to the Mason-jar votives, copper-topped pepper mills and tapering dark wicker bread baskets selected by Sagliocco’s mother, Rosina, and aunt, Lisa Morano. As we talked over the food and the wine (Aglianico, a beguilingly dry red from the Campania region), Sagliocco recalled a Westchester childhood (White Plains birth, Mamaroneck upbringing, Rye Neck High School) and his dream of becoming an investment banker.
But he continued to work in the 63-year-old family landscaping business with his father, Domenico, and his grandfather, Angelo Morano, who died in 2001.
“That was a huge loss,” Sagliocco says. “He was the rock of our family.”
Though Sagliocco had a double concentration in finance and management at Fordham University, with a minor in art history and Italian, he said, “I realized my heart wasn’t in (finance.) It was where my roots were. I saw an opportunity to be something great.”
In 2006, he went into the family landscaping business, taking courses in horticulture and design the following year at The New York Botanical Garden, a place he describes as “magical.”
Sagliocco’s love of all things Mediterranean has taken him from Italy to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to Istanbul and the beaches of Bodrum in Turkey. Always he’s on the lookout for new foods and flavors.
Recently, Sagliocco, who divides his time between the Upper East Side and his parents’ Harrison home, opened Café La Fondita, a Frida Kahlo-colorful taco stand on Center Avenue in Mamaroneck that he says is “Mexico meets Williamsburg.”
Clearly, finance’s loss is food’s gain.
For more, visit lagoristorante.com.