Interview: Luan Tota Marks Tenth Year for Branzino Italian Ristorante

L to R - Owner Luan M. Tota, Chef Mike Stollenwerk and Publicist James Zeleniakat Branzino Italian Ristorante in Philadelphia, PA
L to R - Owner Luan M. Tota, Chef Mike Stollenwerk and Publicist James Zeleniak at Branzino Italian Ristorante in Philadelphia, PA

Most restaurants going into their tenth year would celebrate the comfortable niche they’ve settled into and rest on their laurels. Apparently, that’s not part of the game plan for his Branzino Italian Ristorante (261 S 17th Street, Phila PA, 215.790.0103). Instead, owner Luan Tota expanded his Albanian-influenced Italian menu this summer with the help of well-regarded Philadelphia chef Mike Stollenwerk, doubled the size of his BYOB restaurant and its kitchen, and opened a romantic garden space that won an award in August’s Best of Philly issue of Philadelphia Magazine mere weeks after it opened.

“We were doing well before we expanded into the next door, always very busy, but I had a vision for Branzino of being more than it was,” says Tota. “The place was beautiful, but it was cramped. When I started, I just had the two small dining rooms – 65 seats – an awkwardly placed bathroom and a small kitchen at 35 square feet.” When Branzino and its neighboring property became available to own, Tota swooped in, bought both addresses, and set about excavating the basements (‘with my own hands, yet,” he says with a laugh) and turning them into one large kitchen. After that, Tota built a romantic garden dining space in back of Branzino, complete with trellises and low, sparkly lighting. The only thing left to expand was the menu.

“I wanted to do all this in a very quiet way,” says Tota in his softly accented voice. “I know this city is very hungry for new restaurant information always, but I don’t love the spotlight, at least until something absolutely deserves attention.”

At this point in the conversation, Tota recalls his culinary past, running friends’ restaurants near where he grew up in Albania, as well as talking briefly about the foods cooked by his mother throughout his youth. When Tota lived in Albania with his family, he jokes that he never so much lifted a ladle or handled a spatula. “I never trained for a life in the restaurant business,” says Tota. Instead, Tota was managerial stock who opened several restaurants along the water-lined town of Drilon. Tota knew that when he had the chance to open his own place, that he’d base its hearty meals and delicate sauces on his mom’s menu. “Only I’d put my twist on what she cooked,” he says of the non-conventional Italian fare that exists within Albania’s borders. “This is not your run-of-the-mill red sauces or white sauces, but the food is rich,” he says.

“Like any mother, we were all about home cooking. The old country did not have a lot of restaurants so 99% of our meals are home. The mom is doing all the cooking with the sisters helping her later on. The dishes that I took from my home, I took them to the next level. I made them restaurant worthy.”

Branzino, the restaurant’s subtle and sumptuous titular fish, has forever been on Tota’s menu (de-boned table-side by a waiter), as has his array of pastas such as the creamy whole wheat fettuccine with ricotta “panna montana” and walnuts. Still, Tota wanted to heighten his profile as a Philadelphia restaurant institution. To that end, he brought in an executive chef, Mike Stollenwerk (famed for co-owning Fish and Little Fish) to add his touch to Branzino’s existing menu, plus highlight his own creations such as roasted lamb belly with crushed ceci bean, salmon with pastrami spice, and veal porterhouse.

“Ours is a meeting of the minds,” says Tota, regarding Stollenwerk’s culinary expertise. “He refines our dishes and brings more than a few specialties to our table.” Add to Stollenwerk’s menu an ever-changing array of made-in-house desserts, and Branzino’s tenth anniversary season is definitely a winning one.

Branzino with Asparagus at Branzino Italian Ristorante, Phila PA - Photo by Glamorosi
Branzino with Asparagus at Branzino Italian Ristorante in Philadelphia
Photos © A.D. Amorosi and Glamorosi 2013

Posted on Thursday, August 15, 2013