Culinary school? Check. Work with a celebrity chef? Check. Own your own restaurant and have the time of your life? Double check!
I first met Leia Gaccione, chef/owner of Morristown’s South & Pine, a few years ago when we were both judges at the Fairway Firefighter’s Food Face-Off. At the time, Leia was Chef de Cuisine at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Manhattan. Gaccione worked with Flay for eight years, from Bar Americain to Mesa (both NYC and Las Vegas), and finally, to the opening of his latest NYC venture, Gato in March 2014.
A culinary career is not what she had in mind after graduating high school. But, as is the case for most of us, life had other plans for Gaccione. She had planned to study psychology at Montclair State University, but while working at Raymond’s in Montclair, she was offered a three-day trial with Flay. And the rest, as they say, is history!
I asked Gaccione to describe the most important thing she took away from working with Flay. She said it was learning how to manage people, and how to be a better leader and motivator.
She spent six months in Las Vegas opening Mesa Grill, doing 800 dinners a night, living at Caesar’s Palace, and existing on ramen soup and grilled cheese. While it was fun for a while, the grind took its toll. She came back to New York to open Gato in 2014, and during that time a friend approached her with some interest in investing in a restaurant. Gaccione said no, but after working 100 straight, intense, high-pressure days, she spoke to the same investor again. And that brings us to the intersection of South and Pine.
The atmosphere in the restaurant is friendly and unpretentious (very “come to my house for dinner”). Gaccione and her staff truly make you feel welcome. The first time I visited (unannounced), we arrived a little early, and our table wasn’t ready, as the restaurant was slammed with the first dinner seating. The hostess came back two or three times to let us know she hadn’t forgotten about us, and to offer us something to drink while we waited. Once we were seated, we had a prime view of the open kitchen. (Leia’s takeaways from working at Bobby’s restaurants obviously stuck with her.) The kitchen staff was humming like clockwork, great music was playing, and fabulous food was being delivered to the guests.
We were grazing that night to get a feel for the kitchen’s capabilities, so we ordered a few appetizers and a dessert. First up: the moist and delicious spicy lamb meatballs with Greek yogurt and cucumber. Looking for something to cool you down during the last hot days of the summer? Try the light and full of flavor green gazpacho with delicate poached shrimp, avocado, and olive oil. Outstanding! Another winner: creamy Burrata with fried green tomatoes and cherry pepper vinaigrette.
Readers who follow me know that I am all about dessert. So when our waitperson offered up a blueberry hand pie, I had to have it. Hand pies are today’s version of turnovers, and meant to be eaten by, well, by hand. The one at South and Pine was dreamed up by Clarissa Martino, Gaccione’s classmate at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in NYC. Chock full of fresh, sweet blueberries, and served with a light lemon ricotta sauce, this is the ultimate summer dessert.
When I went back to interview Gaccione for this article, true to her “come to my house” service mantra, she asked, “Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?” Who am I to refuse an offer like that? Let the eating begin!
Gaccione wanted us to try some things we didn’t have on our first visit so she asked her sous to first bring avocado toast. Yes, a lot of chefs have hopped on the avocado toast bandwagon, but this one is ramped up to a new degree of deliciousness. First of all, it’s on really, really good earthy-grainy bread from Hudson Bread, toasted, and smeared with mashed avocado that has been infused with scallions, lime juice, and crunchy, crispy Neuski’s bacon!
Grilled flatbread with gruyère, duck confit, peaches, and arugula
While we were oohing and aahing about the toasts, a beautiful plate of grilled flatbread with gruyère, duck confit, peaches, and arugula, was slid in front of us. People, this was to die for. Run, don’t walk, to South and Pine to try this amazing dish.
And just when I thought I couldn’t eat another thing, out camecrispy squash blossoms with ricotta, broccolini, basil, and arugula pesto. This dish screamed fresh from the farm. The combined flavors were mesmerizing.
I asked Leia to tell me her thoughts about running her own restaurant, now a few months in. She said she loves it; she loves doing it all. From learning about the business side (permits, credit cards, etc.), to crafting the menu, to sitting down with her staff every day for “family” meal, she is, indeed, having the time of her life. She can’t believe this is “real life.” Every move she made during her career was because she just happened to be in the right place, at the right time. She’s certainly in the right place now, at South & Pine. And you should be, too.
Oh, and just as if I were visiting her home, on my way out, Gaccione handed me a little container. What was in it? A blueberry hand pie to go!
Lunch: Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Dinner: Monday to Thursday, 5:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday, 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.