Joe Faro, “chief food taster” for Tuscan Brands, pretty much grew up going to the Black Cow. After all, the restaurant has been a staple of the Newburyport waterfront for more than 20 years. So when the Black Cow moved to a new location, Faro couldn’t pass up the opportunity to open the next installment of his growing Tuscan Brands empire in the iconic building.
“It’s a place I’ve always dreamt of opening a restaurant,” says Faro, who grew up in Lawrence. “I’ve always loved Newburyport. Me, my friends, and eventually my wife—we are all drawn to it.”
The new Tuscan Sea Grill, which combines the philosophy favoring fresh-made food of the brand’s other restaurants with a seafood-heavy menu of coastal Mediterranean cuisine, is one of three restaurants that opened in Newburyport over a matter of weeks this summer—each with its own distinct vibe and philosophy. But all three share a common task: navigating the rough waters of opening in this seaside town during a pandemic.
“It definitely has been a challenge,” says Linda Theth, chef/owner of Lin’s Little Kitchen, specializing in modern Laotian cuisine. “I felt it was very important to open and provide a feeling of comfort through our hospitality and our cooking—people really need it right now.”
It’s true; after months of sheltering in their homes, everyone was thrilled about a change of scenery as Massachusetts started to open back up. John Santaniello, co-owner of Vera Ristorante on Market Square, says his new spot has been doing brisk business since opening. “I’ve already had many repeat customers,” Santaniello says. “People are excited to get out and try something new.”
The three businesses share something in addition to opening during the fraught summer of 2020: heartfelt family connections to food. Santaniello’s family hails from Southern Italy, just outside of Naples, where his relatives still run a revered 101-year-old restaurant and pastry empire. When he was young, Santaniello spent many summers working in the family bakery, and invested many more hours last summer studying in Italy to perfect the pizza and pasta recipes that are mainstays of his new spot.
It’s a lot to live up to. “My father is 91 years old,” Santaniello says. “He called me the night I opened and said, ‘You’d better not embarrass me.’ He was kidding…but not kidding.… You know?”
Most customers would agree that Santaniello has done his father—who hopes to visit from Florida when it’s safe—proud. Vera’s interior is sunny and inviting, dominated by a large bar and a stylish communal table, not to mention a state-of-the-art pizza oven imported from Italy. This is the New York City transplant’s fifth restaurant; among other spots, Santaniello opened the trendy Café Tabac in Manhattan. These days, he’s happy to settle in Newburyport, which reminds him of the East End of Long Island.
The menu at Vera Ristorante is overseen by chef Jeff Howe, who came up in the Columbus Restaurant Group and served as executive chef at L’Andana in Burlington. Its fare hews close to regional dishes that may not be familiar on the North Shore, like the Genovese pasta—a traditional Neapolitan dish of penne topped with a ragu of braised beef with caramelized onion and pecorino cheese. “If you go to any restaurant in Naples, you’ll see that on the menu,” Santaniello says, adding that his mother makes a great one.
At Lin’s Little Kitchen, Theth is also cooking the food of her youth—her mother immigrated from Laos in her early 20s. The chef, who most recently worked at Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, says, “I am sharing my mother’s recipes, and adding my love for local produce and New England seasons.”
But while dishes like pho and banh mi are familiar to the North Shore from Vietnamese restaurants in the area, the Laotian versions might be a bit surprising. They call for more spice mixed right in—a lot more spice, says Theth.
“For many items on our menu, we offer a spice level system,” she explains. “It goes from a warming spice at level one, and progressively gets spicier—rather rapidly.” Boldly order a five, the highest level, she says, and you’ll experience “a burning spice that almost gets spicier as you keep eating.”
Tuscan Sea Grill’s Faro is also the child of immigrants. His parents arrived from Sicily and founded a bakery in Haverhill, but he’s excited that the Newburyport location has encouraged him to explore further. “Our brand is evolving beyond Tuscan Kitchen,” he says. “All the activity from the marina and the boardwalk inspired us to do a spin on our traditional theme.”
It also inspired them to introduce a whole new look, with the help of celebrity interior designer Taniya Nayak. “We’ve built some pretty nice-looking restaurants, but this is honestly the most beautiful restaurant we’ve ever built,” Faro says.
Tuscan features an expansive deck as well as a wall of windows that open up to let the fresh air in, fortunate elements to have during these times.
Working to support restaurants struggling with social distancing regulations, the town of Newburyport has allocated expanded outdoor spaces to both Vera and Lin’s, which will be especially inviting during the North Shore’s typically beautiful fall weather. “We are so fortunate with our outdoor seating,” Theth says. “It definitely draws people in. There is a great community scene here in Newburyport—whenever guests are sitting outside, they seem to always know someone walking by, and that is just a beautiful thing to watch.”