A new celebrity has been spotted at Nick & Toni’s. A friend to some of the world’s most famous personalities, and loved by millions everywhere, Meatless Monday has arrived: every Monday at Nick & Toni’s, the East Hampton landmark, Meatless Monday vegetarian dishes will be featured on the menu.
It makes sense. In a region famous for million-dollar estates and breathtaking views, the reality is that agriculture is Long Island’s largest industry, with over $1 billion in annual revenue. Home to dozens of family-owned farms, award-winning vineyards, and endless roadside farmers’ markets dotting the landscape, on the East End, fresh produce has always been in fashion. It’s not surprising that Nick & Toni’s has joined the Meatless Monday movement; for the last 25 years, they’ve been serving their loyal customers local produce long before “eating locally” was in vogue.
We caught up with Executive Chef Joe Realmuto, who has embraced local, sustainable ingredients since arriving at Nick & Toni’s 21 years ago. No newcomer to the vegetable-forward cuisine, Nick & Toni’s not only has a backyard garden, but hosts a weekly farmers’ market in its parking lot.
Meatless Monday: I’d like to welcome Nick & Toni’s to the Meatless Monday movement. What made you decide to participate?
Joe Realmuto: I watched a recent TEDx talk and when I heard how widespread the movement was, I sent a link to all my chefs and managers and said, ‘you have to understand how big this is.’ So at all five of our restaurants, we’re going to launch it. In addition to Nick & Toni’s, at Rowdy Hall we just announced we are launching Meatless Monday on March 24. And soon, even at Townline BBQ. We are a very open-minded company, and so are our customers. So even at a BBQ place, we understand not everyone eats meat or wants to eat meat on any given night. So even there, we have 15 vegetarian items.
MM: This is great news, but it’s not new for Nick & Toni’s. Working with local farmers and embracing fresh produce has always been a part of your success.
JR: Yes. I came out here 21 years ago and fell in love not only with the restaurant, but also with the beauty of the land and the bounty of farms and fishing. About eight years ago, we started the farmers’ market in our parking lot every Friday. And we have a garden right behind the restaurant. So, for example, when the Black Kale is ready, it goes on the menu as a salad. We keep it simple.
MM: So from the weekly market to the garden to local farms, your customers are truly eating locally.
JR: Absolutely, without a doubt. We are big supporters of the Slow Food movement. It’s all about keeping it local, sustainable and traceable. I keep saying those three words, but it’s so important: local, sustainable and traceable. At Nick & Toni’s, 70% of our food comes from local farms in season when available. So in terms of supporting farmers, we try our best to get as much as possible from the area. We shouldn’t be buying garlic from overseas.
MM: And how was the reaction at Nick & Toni’s the first time Meatless Monday dishes were added to the menu?
JR: Because of where we’re located, and the fact we have so many fresh ingredients available, we change the menu every few weeks. We have a couple staples, like Penne Alla Vecchia Bettola, that are always on the menu. But over the years, our customers–and I think people everywhere–are paying more attention to what they eat. That’s why we’ve been putting one vegetarian item on the menu every night for the last seven years. We always have salads and pasta, but also a vegetarian entrée. We just never had the opportunity to formally bring attention to it, so Meatless Monday gave us that opportunity.
JR: For us, Meatless Monday is all about flexibility, and about adding options to the menu. It’s about choice. On Mondays, we also have a “Burger & Movie” night at Rowdy Hall. There’s a theater down the street and people can get a burger and a movie for $20. That’s why Meatless Monday works; it’s not all or nothing. If a couple comes in and one person wants a burger but the other wants to go vegetarian, they’re both happy. Meatless Monday represents what’s going on out there in the marketplace.
MM: The centerpiece of Nick & Toni’s is the famous wood-burning oven. If Meatless Monday dishes are cooked there, then we’ve arrived.
JR: We are currently making polenta in the wood-burning oven. Seared Gorgonzola Polenta with Wild Mushrooms and Leek Ragu. When customers walk in, the oven is the first thing they see.