Three years ago, Giuseppe Falco partnered with Leo Sacco to open Vesta Trattoria. The seasonally focused Italian restaurant and wine bar quickly earned an enthusiastic following in Astoria, a neighborhood whose dining options were overwhelmingly Greek. Vesta proved so successful that Falco, Sacco, and their chef, Michelle Vido, went on to open a second restaurant, Pachanga Patterson, this February. Inspired by the Mexican-influenced dishes that Mexican restaurant cooks often make for staff meals, it introduced Astoria to dishes like moo shoo duck tacos and veggie jenga.
We checked in with Falco to learn more about his work, and ended up talking with him about everything from neighborhood demographics to Baby Jesus. Check back tomorrow for the second half of our interview.
You grew up in Ridgewood and moved to Astoria after high school. How did you decide to open a restaurant there?
I was living a few blocks away from where Vesta is now. I was working in restaurants in the city for several years and it seemed like it was difficult to go out and get a bowl of spaghetti [in Astoria]. There was nothing like, let’s say Frankies or little places where you could walk in for wine or dinner or a cup of coffee. It felt under-serviced, so it made a lot of sense. We found a space and went for it.
Which restaurants did you work for in Manhattan?
I was the general manager for Bond 45 and Trattoria dell’Arte. I worked in both for about six years.
Had you always wanted to go into the restaurant business?
You know, from the time I was about 17 or 16, that’s all I ever wanted to do. My family doesn’t really come from a restaurant background — they’ve always owned businesses, but furniture businesses. I knew I wanted to own my own business, and wanted my own restaurant.
What kind of food did you grow up eating?
Very, very traditional Sicilian food. Both my parents are from Sicily. I ate tons of fish growing up — it was pretty much on the table three or four nights a week. A lot of things like sardines and anchovies, things that weren’t staples in anyone else’s household, were things we ate all the time. Things like cucuzza, which is a super-long squash. You prep it like a zucchini, but it’s got tons more flavor. You can put it in soup and pasta. We put it in a soup [at Vesta]; Brooklyn Grange grows it for us, and we start serving it in July.
Do you get most of your produce from them?
Yeah. During the five or six months they grow, we get almost everything from them. It’s a great relationship: They grow things specifically for us, which is awesome. When you’re dealing with farmers upstate, you’re taking whatever they’re offering. That’s great, but there’s something to be said about saying, “Next year I’d like to have tons of sorrel,” and being able to get it.
Your menu changes with the seasons, but what are you attached to right now?
One thing I love is the pesto. When people say pesto they think basil, but ours is made from parsley and pine nuts. I’m in love with it; it’s so amazing, and you can do anything with it. A month ago we were serving ramp pesto with house-made mozzarella, and it was pretty awesome. It’s really flexible what you can do with pesto.
We also do a Milanese made with pork butt, which is another thing that’s underutilized. It’s such a great thing to do Milanese with because it has some fat to it. People do Milanese with things that are really lean and sometimes lack flavor, and the texture feels like rubber meat. But pork butt is awesome: We pound it, bread it, and serve it with balsamic pickled onions and arugula from the farm.
Every review I’ve read of Vesta mentions the Baby Jesus cake. What’s the story behind it?
Its origins aren’t that interesting, believe it or not. Well, I guess it’s kind of a funny story. When we were originally sitting down and having a conversation with Michelle, she had made us a bunch of dishes, and we loved her food. When we got to dessert, we were trying to find a signature dessert. We had tasted a bunch of stuff, but nothing incredible — we’d gone through 14 or 15 desserts.
A friend who’s a chef in the city brought out this dessert and it looked terrible, a hunk of cake all uneven and burnt, with a brown sauce on it. But then I tasted it and I was like, Oh God. And my friend turns around and says, “This tastes like baby Jesus.” I think she got it from watching Talladega Nights the night before. And we were like, all right, let’s do it! We were kind of concerned someone would have an issue, but people love it. Basically it’s a date cake with brown sugar, unsweetened whipped cream, and a sort of caramel sauce.
You serve a riff on the cake at Pachanga Patterson.
The Diabolito. It has chocolate, and the sauce has an ancho-chile base.
How do you split your time between your two restaurants?
In the beginning we were spending more time at Pachanga because it was new and we were getting it organized. Now, for the most part, Leo handles Pachanga and I handle Vesta, and Michelle floats back and forth. We plan to continue that going forward.
I imagined you getting culinary whiplash.
I’ll be honest with you. The first couple of months have been really difficult in the sense that it’s rough when you open a new restaurant. You’re there and you’re devoured and someone always has something for you to do. I have just recently started to sleep.
The Times ran a piece a couple of weeks ago about the changing restaurant scene in Astoria and Long Island City. What’s your take on the subject?
I think in Astoria there’s just been such a change. We’ve got all these great places doing different things now. It’s funny: People sometimes think because you’re in the same business you’re competitors, but I’m really friendly with everyone. We all hang out with each other; it’s really tight-knit for the most part. We look at it as we’re all friends and we’re going to support each other.
How has that change translated to your customer demographic?
The demographic is very similar to what it was when we first opened. If anything, it was way younger and now it’s a lot more families, a lot more couples in their mid- to late thirties.
Where restaurants open, people move.
That makes a lot of sense. Wherever you see art or restaurants going is definitely the place to be. And if there’s a train nearby, that’s really the icing on the cake.