SHEEPSHEAD BAY – This August will be twenty years since Angelo Viscoso gave up on a career in engineering and opened il Fornetto on Emmons Avenue – continuing his family’s tradition of serving good food to good neighbors.
Vicoso, 45, grew up in the business – his parents owned and ran Vesuvio, the beloved Bay Ridge pizzeria. His roommates in college joked with him, asking why he was bothering with his mechanical engineering degree when they all knew he was going to end up running a restaurant.
After college, Viscoso worked as an engineer for a medical company in New Jersey, but… his college roommates were right. Six months later, he would be opening a restaurant in Brooklyn. It was by chance that they ended up in Sheepshead Bay – a deal to open in the World Trade Center, in 1999, had fallen through.
“The same time that deal fell through, this deal became available, and it was kind of [perfect] timing,” he said.
The restaurant was originally a more casual, brick oven pizza restaurant, similar to the one he grew up in. Over time, they listened to the neighbors and grew into something that would cater more to what they wanted.
“Because it happened so quickly, we didn’t do a lot of research. We were working on the other deal and this one kind of came up right away, and within 30 days we were open. So, there was not much due diligence before, but when we opened, naturally, we learned,” Viscoso said, adding that the restaurant that was there before them was more of a full Italian dinner spot.
“I think just kind of having [their] customers come back to this location forced us towards this more formal Italian restaurant, just by [them] coming in and requesting certain things.”
Since the original changing-to-fit-the-need approach, not much has changed at il Fornetto.
Sure, they’ve expanded to a new dining room, and moved the pizza oven to the kitchen instead of out front. Private events and catering are much more popular and available now. But, much of the staff is the same, including the server who pours us water during our conversation.
“He has been here since we opened…He was one of the first servers when we opened 20 years ago and he’s still here,” Viscoso says after the server fills the glasses. He estimates that about ten of the twenty-five staff members have been there for more than ten years. Many of the food distributors, contractors, and customers are still the same.
This consistency, Viscoso says, is key.
“I think [the restaurant] hasn’t changed much, and I think people look for stability. They look for familiar faces when it comes to staff, and like I mentioned before, the staff has been here a long time, both front of the house and back of the house,” Viscoso says, adding that when the original chef retired, he was replaced by the man who had been his sous chef.
“The food has been very consistent, which I think is important throughout the twenty years… When people are looking for a place to eat, they always go back to what they’re comfortable with. People always try to go out and try the adventurous new thing, but eventually they settle back to what they like,” Viscoso said.
At il Fornetto, this food includes fried calamari, baked clams, truffled linguini, and many other classic seafood and Italian dishes.
He worked seven days a week, opening and closing, sometimes working 20-hour days to get the restaurant going. Those early days, when the restaurant began to click, are some that stick out the most to him over his twenty-year ownership.
“There was just so much time and effort that was put in. It wasn’t just for me, it was for everybody that worked here as well. You’re employing people and now you have fifteen, twenty, twenty-five families that are dependent on the restaurant’s success. So, when it kind of clicked that it started really taking off and getting busier, it was gratifying to see,” Viscoso said.
The years at il Fornetto have not been without hardship. It is impossible to discuss owning a waterfront restaurant that was open in 2012 without discussing Hurricane Sandy. Viscoso and his team, like many others, figured that the storm wouldn’t be too bad. They put valuables on top of the tables, and boarded up some of the water-facing windows.
Viscoso settled in at his Queens home, able to watch the restaurant’s security camera feed from his phone.
“I was constantly watching the camera, and finally it got to the point where Sandy hit. You look[ed] on the camera and there was five feet of water, instantly. It goes from zero to five feet, instantly. And it was around Halloween, we had this 90-pound pumpkin, floating around the restaurant,” Viscoso said. Live swans, presumably seeking shelter from the storm, later joined the pumpkin as he watched on. “At that point the whole glass waterfront was gone, and when I came in the next day it was just upside down. So, we had to replace everything basically [from] five feet down.”
Il Fornetto, in an amazing feat that proves the value of building long-term relationships with your contractors, opened just two and a half weeks after Sandy hit, before Thanksgiving. That, Viscoso said, was the good thing.
“The bad thing was that we didn’t realize that everybody had more important things to do than come to a restaurant. All of our customer base is along the waterfront, whether it’s going east or going out to Staten Island, that was where most of our customers were. They were just busy dealing with their own property, so, unfortunately, it wasn’t that busy. We suffered.”
“It took us about six months to get going and maybe about a year to really get past Sandy,” he said. In his twenty years, the one single thing Viscoso says he wishes he had done differently is take a larger break after Sandy, taking stock of what they had and what larger renovations could have been done.
Il Fornetto has also survived a changed Sheepshead Bay, one that Viscoso says was mostly fishermen and bungalows when they opened. Now, there are far more high-rises and apartment buildings. For Viscoso, this isn’t all bad.
“It’s definitely changed the look of Sheepshead Bay over the years. I think one of the benefits for restaurants is that it brought more people in. Obviously, if you’re going to replace a single-family home with multiple dwellings there’s obviously more people, and more people is more customers. So, I think that was a positive for the restaurants, not only for ourselves but I think more places have opened up to meet that demand of [an] increasing population,” he said.
Viscoso’s secret to his survival and subsequent success is simple, and it starts with him.
“I think it’s just how you treat people. If you teach staff the right way, they go above and beyond. If you ask them to do something and they like you, they’re going to do it, if they don’t like you, they’re not going to do it because they don’t have to. I think that’s really a big thing, just how you treat your staff. I think that you really have to be able to treat staff the way you would want to [be treated],” he said.
The next twenty years for il Fornetto will be filled with the same respect and consistency that they have been known for.
“At the end of the day, we are a neighborhood restaurant. A lot of our business comes from the neighborhood. [We’re] truly looking to see what they’re looking for and just trying to give them a great spot to keep coming back to,” he says, inviting those who have moved away or just never made it to the restaurant to come to visit.
“We’re still here. You’ll see a lot of familiar faces, I think the food is better than ever. Just come back and come visit us, we’d like to see you again. For customers that have been coming over the years we’re definitely grateful for the support, especially over the hard times, and for anybody new, come out.”
Il Fornetto will be running an anniversary special, with more details to come throughout August. A signature prix fixe menu will be served for $19.99, an homage to their opening year. You can find them at 2902 Emmons Avenue, off of East 29th Street.