Food and a focus at Pisticci

Pisticci’s owners ask, “Is it possible for a small business to be an environmental steward and be successful?”

If you’re not looking for Pisticci, you might miss it.

Actually, you might miss the Italian eatery in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan even if you are looking for it.

Situated at 125 La Salle St. between Broadway and Claremont avenues on the Harlem border, the restaurant sits below street level, with a handful of steep stairs leading down to the dining area.

Once inside, though, you’re greeted by smiling employees and laughing patrons and you’ll realize you’ve stumbled upon an eclectic-if-hidden gem.

“My wife and I…built the restaurant as a place we would like going to ourselves,” said Michael Forte, who co-owns the eatery with wife Vivian. “That’s what drove us, and that’s still what drives us.”

Forte’s family hails from the restaurant’s namesake, Pisticci, a town in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, where his grandfather spent his days farming the land and raising crops.

Penne Pisticci. Photograph by Aleesia Forni.

“We would go to Italy, and I was always so impressed with how you were able to get such great food there,” he said. “There, farm-to-table isn’t anything new, it’s just a way of life,”

Though neither Forte had any experience in the restaurant business, they did have a simple, singular goal — to create a welcoming, community-focused restaurant.

“We’re the kind of place people come two or three nights a week, and they’ve been doing that for years,” the Irvington resident said.

Opened in 2002, Pisticci was one of the first restaurants to take up residence in Morningside Heights. As the eatery’s popularity grew, so did its footprint. Pisticci has expanded twice in the past decade and now includes three bars and three separate dining rooms.

“Each room looks different, but they’re all obviously connected,” he said.

The result is a fun, comfortable, 150-seat eatery that somehow manages to make each section feel like its own unique space, while maintaining a cohesiveness and flow throughout. There’s the chic wine cellar room that boasts original stone walls and oversize wooden candle fixtures, the main dining room with exposed brick, exposed pipes and floor-to-ceiling windows and a den area with its trompe l’oeil effect of bookshelves lining the walls.

 A recent weekend visit found the restaurant bustling with diners, some seated near the floor-to-ceiling windows to gaze at the recently fallen snow, some taking up residence in the cozy, dimly lit rear dining room.

We arrived just in time to grab brunch and started with an order of Pisticci fiorentino, which offers crumbled prosciutto, soft poached eggs and a creamy white sauce atop wilted spinach and tomato medallions. A side of potatoes were perfectly crisp and paired with fresh greens.

Penne Pisticci, one of the restaurant’s staples, features noodles cooked to al dente perfection, with a light yellow and red vine tomato sauce, finished with warm homemade mozzarella and slivers of fresh basil.

A twist on the über-trendy avocado toast include a mix of avocados and chickpeas spread atop multigrain toast, with thin slices of tomato and an accompanying mix of greens.

For the Fortes, Pisticci is about more than just a welcoming restaurant that serves delicious food. It’s about the environment.

“It’s a personal decision. It’s a passion of my wife and mine,” Forte said. “When we opened this restaurant, we asked ourselves, “Is it possible for a small business to be an environmental steward and be successful?’”

Pisticci fiorentino. Photograph by Aleesia Forni.

The answer, they found, was a resounding “yes.”

The eatery is one of only five 4-star green restaurants in New York state, a rating given to restaurants that meet strict environmental-friendly criteria. The restaurant is also carbon neutral and even switched from using conventional energy sources (“We don’t use any gas-powered equipment,” Forte said) to renewable energy. Recently, Pisticci added an on-site composting area behind its restaurant.

“I’d love to see if it’s possible to do zero waste,” he said. “I don’t know if it is, but I’m going to try.”

The company also implemented profit sharing with its employees, along with setting up flex time to allow them to control their own hours. That flexible schedule is especially important because the restaurant is in New York, where much of the staff is made up of aspiring artists, singers, dancers and actors.

It’s not difficult to tell that the steps Forte has taken with his employees have paid off. Each person we encountered on our visit was friendly and quick to laugh or joke. Many of the cooks and sous chefs at Pisticci have been with the restaurant for more than a decade, Forte said.

“There are managers that have been with me from the beginning,” he added. “I’ve got a really good base of people.”

Another significant step Pisticci has taken in recent years is the inclusion of fresh produce grown by the Fortes themselves.

Inspired by four years spent living with his family in Australia and working on an urban farm, Forte began growing his own organic crops near his home in Westchester. Crops are grown both on a plot of land at Kitchawan Farm in Yorktown and within a pair of greenhouses in Croton-on-Hudson.

The farm uses the compost from its restaurant to cultivate those vegetables, which are then incorporated in a variety of dishes at the restaurant. That cyclical relationship lends to the operation’s name, Pisticci Full Circle Farm.

“My goal is to grow enough where it pays for itself in the long run,” he said.

Still, Forte already has eyes on the future and hopes to double or triple the size of his farming operation in the coming year.

“I’m still learning, it’s a big learning curve,” he said, his enthusiasm contagious. “These are just the beginning phases.”

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