Chef Daniele Puleo and his fiancée are having dinner when we arrive at Daniele Osteria. When I called to let him know we're stuck in traffic, he tells me to take my time. "We'll go ahead and order," he says. I don't know who he's talking about at the time. But I am nervous to discover when I arrive that it's his fiancée, Christina Newton.
Will she try to answer the questions for him? Will he hold back his true answers because she's there? Can I get the "real" Puleo with her at his side? It turned out that I needn't have worried. Puleo was as laid back and perfectly candid as I had hoped he would be. But you can't blame a girl for being concerned.
I tell him we'll start with the easy stuff. "OK," he says with a laugh, "Yes. No. Maybe. 43."
"Is that your age?" I ask. He grins broadly. "I'm 43 and this is my hair by the way. No Rogaine. No transplant and this is my real color too." Puleo is charming and sincere and, it has to be said, very handsome. He hails from Sicily and still boasts a thick, sexy, Italian dialect. He is every bit the Italian chef persona and Osteria reflects his style perfectly -- romantic, understated, real. It has a "where everyone knows your name" kind of feel, even if it's your very first time there.
The location is an interesting one. You have to step down a flight of stairs to enter from street level. "I'm underground. I'm already six feet under," Puleo jokes about his choice. But despite the funny spot, Osteria is an incredibly romantic place. In fact, Puleo says a ton of wedding proposals take place at Osteria. "I hear we're second only to the French Room for wedding proposals," Newton says.
While we talk, we indulge in Puleo's crispy calamari with rich marinara and his signature spinach salad with sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, crisp pancetta, feta cheese and a bright balsamic vinaigrette. For entrees we indulge in the ridiculously rich gnocchi Gorgonzola and the pappardelle con pollo.
The food is fresh and classic and delicious. The gnocchi is one of my dining companion's all-time favorite dishes. "Decadence defined," she calls it. The freshly made pappardelle wins my heart, and I am sad to reach the bottom of my bowl. We finish with sorbet and tiramisu. But Puleo himself doesn't indulge. "I don't have a sweet tooth. I never eat dessert here. Sometimes I eat Oreos at home," he says with a boyish grin.
The restaurant is filled with couples and groups, friends and family. They get everyone in Osteria, Puleo says. As for what he sees most, well, along with being a draw for couples bound for the aisle, Puleo says he also tends to get many Japanese guests at Osteria.
"They really appreciate how Daniele does fish," Newton explains. "I leave it alone," Daniele says. "I serve it with the head, the tail, everything. I don't fillet it. I cook it with everything. Oh, and I cook oxtail. My Japanese guests love oxtail. And baby octopus."
Osteria will always be Puleo's first love, but he is also over the moon about his latest endeavor Brix Pizza and Wine Bar -- first a location in Fort Worth and now one in Roanoke. "Brix is a lot of fun," he explains. "We serve over 2,000 people a week at the one in Roanoke. Brix is two traditions together. American and Italian. Authentic Italian pizza with authentic American style. Big screen TVs. Red is the predominant color. It makes people happy. It's the perfect marriage."
Situated near the TCU campus, the Fort Worth location draws a big college crowd as well as plenty of families "and yuppies. We've got everything. Brix Pizza and Wine Bar is volume with a good quality. Usually volume means bad quality. But that's not a problem at Brix. We served over 500 people one Saturday. Like a food factory. We had to mix dough twice that day and then when NASCAR came through...Texas Motor Speedway is five minutes away [from Roanoke location]. Every restaurant had 500-600 people in it that weekend."
Puleo loves the small town feel of Roanoke and the Brix Pizza and Wine Bar location there, which faces City Hall and the water tower. "Roanoke is a brand new city. The unique dining Capital of Texas, they say. It's a really cute little town. Everyone knows everyone and now everyone knows Daniele," he jokes. "The sheriff has come by. The police chief. The mayor." The location has been open for two and a half months now. "September 11," Puleo explains. "I wanted to make a statement. I wanted to show that America rebuilds. We will come back." As Italian as he may me, Puleo has an unmistakable love for the United States.
His love of all things small town and authentic might be one of the reasons why, when I ask about the celebrity chef phenom, he quickly replies, "I don't like Food Network," Puleo says. "First of all, because they are just building images. It's not real life. A real chef is behind the burners. A real chef is on the line. Real chefs should teach people how to cook." He quickly adds, "Would I say no to Food Network? Probably not." Puleo says he has Food Network on the TV at Brix 24/7. "It makes people hungry," Puleo explains.
The chefs Puleo admires include Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsey. "I really appreciate Wolfgang Puck. Greatest restaurant man who ever, ever lived," he adds.
It's an interesting mix, Osteria and Brix Pizza and Wine Bar, and Puleo says there was most definitely a method to his madness. "I think the restaurant business changes. It goes in cycles. Every 10 years [the industry] changes with each generation."
Puleo says that the key to success in the restaurant industry is to pay attention while still focusing on what you know and love. "If it's about tapas, you do tapas. If it's about big orders, you provide big orders. You have to follow the trends. When the pizza and wine bar trend came along, I adjusted myself to something different."
Of course, it was different with his first restaurant. The first time around, Puleo simply followed his heart. "Osteria was never money related since day one. It was about the glory of serving food the way it should be. I never thought I'd have Brix Pizza and Wine Bar." Puleo hit on a winning combination with Brix. But it's different from his initial success in the industry. Ask Puleo why he thinks Osteria has been such a success, and he simply smiles contentedly. "There's no secret. It's just the food." When he picked the location for Osteria, friends thought he was crazy. But Puleo simply told then, "It doesn't matter. If the food is good people will come." Turns out, in his case anyway, he was right.
When it came to Brix, location was no longer a problem. "I open Brix," he says. "I'm street level. I'm like the phoenix. I rise to the top." With that, he laughs.
When I ask what his future holds, Puleo doesn't even stop to take a breath. "In five years I want to live on a ranch with my horses, my little baby dog, my wife, and, hopefully, my kids. I'll work four days a week and work three days on my ranch. I'll keep up with the trends. But I'll still do what I enjoy and know the most. Pizza is just another branch of Italian food. I only do what I know. I can appreciate good Chinese or Japanese or Mexican, but I would not get in the kitchen and start cooking it."
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As proud as Puleo is of his restaurants and their success, there is something about which he is even more proud. "I became an American citizen on October 29th, 2010, here in Dallas." That night he celebrated in true Texas fashion. "I went to celebrate at the Stockyards in Fort Worth in beautiful cowboy boots and cowboy hat," he explains.
An October wedding is in the works for Puleo and Newton. "I proposed over a piece of tuna in an extremely romantic town in Sicily, Italy." He laughs. "My father said, 'Tell her to eat. It's gonna get cold. She can cry later.' In the summer, the restaurant brings all the tables outside. 2000-year-old cobblestone streets, The Mediterranean. And all of it backed up to the ocean on the Greek side of the island. The Greeks built that road. The buildings are so old. I didn't build the whole scenario; it just happened like that and then right around the corner was an opera concert." A mischievous look then crosses his face. "And then, he jokes, "Pavarotti started singing 'Christine, I love you.'"
And then, as if right on cue, Bésame Mucho starts playing in the restaurant. It makes Newton smile. "He sings at home all the time. It's so hysterical. When he's with his kids he sings opera about anything, even a red light. Anything to make us laugh."
Laughter, romance, and authenticity, coupled with great food and great style. Works for me.