GARY LANGEVIN may have been born in the States, but at age two he went off to live with his mama in Naples, Italy, where she had opened a restaurant called the Josie’s Golden Triangle.
He and his sis grew up in that kitchen, standing on rickety wooden chairs to wash dishes, chopping onions and learning the trade beside his Nona Maria.
The tastes, scents and textures of this fragrant and delicious native cuisine course through his veins and light him up like a bright candle inside to this day.
He got started early learning how things are done from the ground up in an Italian kitchen. As a kid, his favorite dish was Spaghetti Carbonara, especially as created by Nona Maria, so one day, when that after-school craving hit, he tugged on grandma’s apron and asked, “Can you show me how to make it?” And so she did.
Next day, he begs for his favorite treat again. Wise Nona Maria laughs and says, “Didn’t I show you yesterday how to make it? Well, go ahead!”
How old was this future chef at the time? All of eight summers... like I said, he started early!
Back in the U.S. at age 18 and seeking a way to make a living, what other path would he choose but to bank on that store of knowledge built up over years of careful training by his Mama and Nona. Eventually he rose to be the owner of a well-loved neighborhood pizzeria in New Jersey, where families and local folk who loved authentic Napoli pizza could wine and dine away their mealtime.
He knew them all, who liked anchovies, who insisted on veggies only, and who wanted only olive oil—no tomato sauce, please!
That kind of attention to the customer, his devotion to only the best ingredients, and finely-honed skills that reached back God-only-knows how many generations, kept the place roaring along every week and built up his rep as the surefire neighborhood favorite for the most authentic Italian pizza, and I ain’t talkin’ Pizza Hut here!
Later on, after marriage to the lucky Heather and a couple of cute kids, he got the urge to explore other territory and brought his craft down south. Ending up in a favored vacation spot, Charleston, Gary set up Pizzeria Bella Napoli and began rakin’ in the fans.
His daughters Serina and Maria grew up like their papa did, working in the kitchen, and Heather is his partner in life and in the biz.
Maybe it was the salty tang of the marshlands, the laidback Savannah vibe, or piquant mix of tourism and history, but during a weekend Gary felt that itch again, to move, expand outwards, and share his vision of real Naples cuisine, and this time, not just his famous pizza.
Word came to him of a primo spot: Right over that last bridge on Johnny Mercer Boulevard, just as you enter the Island, over to the left, rough wood exterior, surrounded by marsh, big windows that look out over a river gilded by the afternoon sun. This was it!
He and his buddies cleared out the brush and scrubby undergrowth all the way up to the little bridge, so that diners could have a wide and beautiful vista across the marshlands. With his crew of Assistant Chef Reuben Rodriguez, Phil Felice and Frank Iemmo, they put together a slam-bangin’ menu of favorites like Saltimbocca di Vitello alla Romana (veal cutlet sautéed with sage in a white wine butter sauce, gloriously topped with prosciutto n’ mozzarella) or the Frutti di Mare Fra Diavolo, a seafood lover’s dream of fresh clams, mussels, calamari and shrimp in a spicy marinara served over pasta.
Speaking of pasta—ask for da Big Cheese when you order spaghetti. The story goes that the huge golden wheel of Parmigiana came over from Italy in its own airplane seat—and I could believe it because the thing is sizeable enough to bathe a baby in! Brought out on its own cart, when you see it arrive, prepare to be entertained!
Frank Iemmo is a modest server who is really an artiste in disguise: his performance is not to be missed.
After opening the lid of da Big Cheese, he carefully carves a generous amount to mix with your pasta, then sets the pasta itself on an island of cheese in the middle, shaving off finer bits to mix in.
That goes into your warmed dish, followed by an array of fresh herbs, clams, sausage, whatever you like, laid carefully in the bowl with such a precise and artistic hand that what you get is amounts to an edible work of art.
A certain mayoral candidate one evening at dinner enthusiastically recommended the shrimp and sausage over pasta; it’s not on the menu, but you can still ask for it.
I was treated to this display of Frank’s fine cheese-itude and the result was amazing! The tart bite of fresh parmigiana will make you vow to forever leave behind the dried powdery stuff in the supermarket.
The shrimp were plump and tender, the sausage had a delicately herb-y flavor and delightful texture, the juicy little tomatoes were superb, and blended with freshly shaved parmesan ... a dream of Italy come true!