The new old-school

On White Plains’ Central Avenue, a two-story 1940s charmer rises among a proliferation of strip malls and car dealerships. Sundrenched yellow façade and white trim offer a hint of the good ol’ days. For 35 years, the spot was Gregory’s, serving authentic Italian to the who’s who of Westchester’s business and social scene, where owner Billy Losapio also served as patron saint of closing deals.

“I was a great arranger of people,” says Losapio, an elegant man whose handshake is ironclad. “A lot of deals went down here that I was responsible for.”

Calling him a people person is like calling Babe Ruth a ballplayer. From politics to the Rat Pack, he ran in enough of the right crowds to rub elbows with the likes of Nelson A. Rockefeller and Frank Sinatra. Both dined at Gregory’s, plus legends like Dean Martin, Liza Minnelli and Bette Midler. But since shuttering Gregory’s in 2006 and with it one of the strongest legacies of local dining, any eatery attempting to reinvent the restaurant seemed doomed. The space saw four different restaurants in twice as many years try – and fail – to launch bistro concepts. Anything that wasn’t Gregory’s wouldn’t last. But all that could change with Sapori.

Celebrating its first anniversary next month, Sapori’s revival of traditional fine Italian dining and handshake hospitality is poised to give it staying power. And that comes from the godfather himself.

“Everything here is up to par,” says Losapio, who still owns the property. “I ask people, ‘How was the food? The service?’ And they say, ‘Impeccable, Billy. Just like when you were here.’”

Owners and brothers Sammy and Kenny Balidemaj, who both bring decades of experience in Italian fine dining, seem to have struck that solid balance of timeless favorites and refined aesthetic. A $2 million renovation (thanks to an owner in the interim) opened the first-floor ceiling to brighten the main dining room, which also leads to cozier alcoves and nooks for a more intimate experience. Make sure you descend the winding staircase to the left of the entrance for a seating in the downstairs grotto – a cozy cavern with velvet-decked ceilings and striking masonry arches that enclose dining booths. It’s also the wine cellar, which includes fine international and extensive Tuscan offerings.

Elegant plates leave the kitchen run by Chef Michael Mazzei, who earned a culinary master’s degree in Italy after graduating from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. His menu reads like a greatest hits of an Italian gourmet – burrata, beef carpaccio and baked clams; housemade pastas; and refined meats like veal medallions, rack of lamb, pan-seared pork chop and pollo scarpariello. His roasted duck breast gets finished with apricot, dry cranberry and port wine reduction.

A favorite of our meal was the tagliolini neri – squid ink pasta mingling with shrimp, scallops and crab and bathed in a delicate pink Champagne sauce. There’s no skimp on portion size here, nor in the meatiness or abundance of seafood.

Branzino, though, is the specialty of the house and presented with much ceremony as Kenny expertly debones the whole fish tableside. To do the deed, I imagine I’d need tweezers, knives and a magnifying glass – not to mention all 10 fingers. Kenny just uses a fork and a spoon.

“They call me Doctor Branzino,” he says with a grin.

Smooth in taste and flaky in texture, the fish gets a spritz and garnish of lemon for a refreshing finish.

“I am so proud of these boys,” says Losapio.

There’s much to be proud of, particularly for the brothers – now poking fraternal workplace jabs among white tablecloths – who once lived in war-torn Montenegro.

“At home, we didn’t have many options – going to school every day and not knowing if you’re coming home,” says Sammy, the elder of the two. “Everyone’s dream was to get out of the country.”

Self-made restaurateurs – Sammy rose through the ranks of fine dining in Manhattan as Kenny helped helm the family restaurant back home – they’re pros in hospitality and operations, and they’re set for the long haul.

“We trust ourselves here,” says Kenny. “We know what works.”

Sapori is at 324 Central Ave. in White Plains. For more, call 914-684-8855 or visit saporiofwhiteplains.com.

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