Even though Ristorante Molise in Amesbury has received numerous food awards and citations, you won’t find them displayed on the door or walls.
by Carolyn Montalto
What patrons find instead, are a few family photographs taken in the Old Country that not only remind sister-owners Antonietta DiLemme and Elise Zullo of their Italian roots, but create the warm, homey atmosphere that the sisters feel is an integral part of an authentic Italian dining experience. And they should know. They were born in the Molise region of Italy and raised by a family with “food in their blood.”
“My family Â– including my grandmother and grandfather Â– used to go out into the field at 4 or 5 a.m.,” says Antonietta, “but a couple of women would stay back to cook the biscotti and espresso. At 10 a.m. they brought sausage, peppers, and onions, fried eggs, and fruit out to the family. My father had his jug of homemade wine, and we’d rest for twenty minutes. At 3 p.m., we’d have our five-course mealÂ…and then a very light supper.” But the work was back-breaking, and the girls’ father longed for the opportunity that defined America. It took him fifteen years to get his family to Massachusetts, often eating only bread to save money for the trip. “I am a very blessed person,” says Antonietta, who was 15 when she came to America. Elsa was 12.
“We never take a day for granted. We know how hard our father worked to get us here.”
The move paid off. Antonietta went to college, learned to speak English, and opened her first restaurant, Antonietta’s in Everett, at 19. After she sold that establishment, she went into business with her sister and opened the first Ristorante Molise in Wakefield 18 years ago. The Amesbury location recently celebrated its third anniversary, and the success, says Antonietta, is tied to their “passion.”
That the owners are passionate about their food is clear. In addition to buying fresh produce, the restaurants use the parsley, herbs, cucumbers, and tomatoes that come from their parents’ backyard garden in Medford. They’ve been using the same veal supplier for 25 years because “you don’t sacrifice quality when you’ve got something good Â– even if it’s less expensive.”
Their passion for food translates to exquisitely prepared and beautifully presented dishes. The Antipasta alla Molise serves two, is priced at $10.99, and includes the more expensive prosciutto di Parma, thick slices of imported buffalo mozzarella, and a medley of marinated vegetables drizzled with a fragrant basil olive oil. Salad or homemade soup comes with all the entrees, and bread is served with a complex, deeply flavored dipping oil that is an “old family recipe.”
The menu is huge, as are the individual portions, and the recipes are deeply rooted in authentic Italian cuisine. The tender vitello saltimbocca, priced under $20, paired well with the salty-sweet prosciutto and creamy melted mozzarella. Aragosta alla Rossa, $25.99, a special on the menu, tossed bigger-than-life pieces of lobster with jumbo shrimp and tender scallops in a sensual wine sauce that was served over so much angel hair pasta that the leftovers provided a substantial dinner for the following night.
Some recipes are innovative interpretations of classic Italian fare. The crispy trio of polenta cakes topped with goat cheese and sprinkled with fresh tomato and basil is a stunning example of Old World meets nouvelle cuisine. The rich dense texture of the vegetable frittata is more like a dense savory cheesecake than a close cousin to the fragile quiche. And the premier dessert on a tray of mouthwatering choices was, for me, the simple bread pudding enriched with white chocolate and doused with a caramel sauce.
But Ristorante Molise is about more than its food; just ask the patrons who come regularly three and four nights a week. Some will tell you it’s about history Â– a bridge to a culture that is brought to life as the owners recount their childhood stories. Some will tell you it’s about the ambiance Â– a beautiful dining room with Old World charm, infused with light and soft Italian music. Others will tell you it’s about the hospitality Â– where you are welcomed with open arms as if you are family. “My sister and I treat customers like they are coming to our house for dinner. I tell my staff,” Antonietta explains, “‘Don’t ever take anything for granted. I’m not your boss; the customers are.'”
Sibling Rivalry, Italian Style
In the popular movie, Big Night, two brothers who have emigrated from Italy to America quarrel constantly over how to run their restaurant. According to Antonietta DiLemme, who runs Ristorante Molise with her sister, Elisa Zullo, the movie accurately depicts Italian family dynamics. “I could not finish watching that movie,” she says. “It stressed me out. It was too familiar.” Antonietta relates the story of the time she took a dish off of the menu that wasn’t selling. Unfortunately, the dish had been named after her brother. “His feelings were so hurt,” she says, “that he didn’t talk to me for two years! I keep telling him that I will name another dish after him. And I know that once I do, I have to put it on the menu before the dish named after my other brother because he is older.” It is the sharing of these personal stories that elevates the dining experience to a new level, one where you truly feel as if you’ve been invited to someone’s home. Antonietta and Elisa are not just restaurateurs, they are quintessential hosts who offer their patrons a rich Italian experience that goes far beyond the food. But the question arises: how do two Italian sisters work together in a kitchen? They don’t. Antonietta says, “You put two sisters together in a kitchen, and they fight. My sister stays in the front of the house or does payroll. I work in the kitchen. We never see each other. We have a great relationship.”
Location, Location, Location
While most restaurateurs invest time and market-research money seeking out prime spots for their eateries, the Amesbury location actually came to Ristorante Molise. A friend of the sisters’ parents mentioned that the CEO of The Provident Bank was looking for a good tenant to occupy space in downtown Amesbury. The Wakefield restaurant was doing very well, and Antonietta says she was receptive to the idea of a second location, but had one question: “Where’s Amesbury”? That the sisters chose a suburban location, as opposed to going into the North End, for example, is a testament to their philosophy of operating small businesses with the emphasis on family. “It’s just me and my sister,” says Antonietta. To us, money isn’t everything. We wanted to go slowly — to make sure that the community liked us first.” The community has embraced them. “This has been one of the best family communities,” Antonietta says. “They took us in with open arms. They gave us our liquor license with no problem. It is a wonderful town, and we are very grateful.” And the sisters exemplify their gratitude. For them, the concept of “giving back” is a critical part, not just of business, but of life. For them, it can mean sending a mercy meal to a local family in mourning, participating in social and civic organizations, or opening the restaurant at noon for a local church group. “Life is about balance,” says Antonietta whose philosophical roots connect the Old World to the New.
1 Market Square
Amesbury, MA 01913
Tel: 978.388-4844 Fax:
Tuesday Â– Sunday:
Dinner 4:00 Â– 9:30 p.m.
Take-out and catering are also available