Della Femina closed its doors on Saturday night after serving the last piece of pan-seared Maine “day boat” halibut with truffled Yukon gold potato purée and wild mushroom sauce, the last pillowy pockets of white bean agnolotti with smoky bacon sauce, and the last slice of Holly Dove-Rozzi’s creamy cheesecake on a buttery chocolate cookie crust with blackberry purée and caramel popcorn.
I never had the opportunity to review Della Femina as it was the restaurant my esteemed predecessor, Sheridan Sansegundo, chose as her final review before she moved to Mexico. She chose it because it was her favorite restaurant. It was certainly one of mine.
I’ll describe it for you anyway. Upon entering you were most likely greeted by the imperturbable Walter Struble (12 years of service to Della Femina), a man who performed his job more like a ship’s captain giving orders from the bridge than the manager of a high-end restaurant. To the left was the L-shape bar, manned by the superb mixologists, John Cavallaro (14 years) and Gilles Baudin (18 years). You want a martini with jalapenos, crazy lady? Someone trotted over to the I.G.A. to fetch the fiery chilies for your drink.
The dining room was creamy beige, softly carpeted, with a fireplace and the most exquisite light fixtures that resemble sheafs of wheat. There was outdoor dining on the flagstone patio. The exterior trim was painted a deep, glossy green, and there were always
colorful and lush window boxes created by Jane Lapin.
Why was Della Femina closed at the top of its game? Like everything else owned by Jerry Della Femina — including his oceanfront house and his newspaper, The Independent — the restaurant was for sale and someone bought it.
In a town now saturated with excellent restaurants, what made Della Femina, the first local, year-round, New York Times excellent-rated restaurant, a success?
“I did one smart thing,” explained Mr. Della Femina. “I never told anyone how to do their job, never told a chef what to do. Drew Nieporent came to help me open the restaurant and found our first chef, Pat Trama.”
Pat Trama hired Kevin Penner. When Kevin Penner left to open a Della Femina in Manhattan, James Carpenter and Michael Rozzi took over the kitchen. After 16 years, Michael Rozzi said he is most proud of building up a loyal, year-round, local clientele. He also echoed Mr. Della Femina’s hands-off approach. “It’s been a great run, there is no better boss than Jerry. I could do geoduck, veal cheeks. He accepted any new and exciting things I wanted to try. At the beginning, some of the work seemed tedious, painful, almost cruel. But it was those little things that made this place great. My cooking has evolved over the years. It’s much lighter, we use less butter, more local vegetables.”
Mr. Della Femina put his name on the restaurant “because I knew it would make me work twice as hard. Of course, I’m an egomaniac, too! I knew it was a success when my wife and I were in there one night and we looked around the room. There wasn’t one person we knew or who knew us. I told her ‘This is a real restaurant!’ ”
Mr. Della Femina even recalled his first meal, some lightly sautéed bay scallops. His last meal on Saturday night, he predicted, would probably be the Amish chicken with herb jus, accompanied by his signature cocktail, an Absolut Peppar vodka martini with extra olives.
This week some of the chefs past and present shared some memories. Kevin Penner recalled blasting AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” to get the staff energized right before service. Michael Rozzi recalled hiding in the laundry baskets and Dumpsters nd popping out to scare the bejesus out of some unsuspecting colleague. James Carpenter remembered setting a small shed on fire while he was smoking barbecue for a Della Femina July Fourth party. When the firemen attempted to douse the fire with a dry chemical spray, he fought past them to rescue the meat. The restaurant was not fined for this incident; the fire department was happily appeased with a gift of some of the well-smoked meat.
On the last nights of service, Mr. Rozzi was serving some of his favorite Della Femina signature dishes: fluke tartare, halibut, the rib-eye steak with buttermilk onion rings, Valrhona flourless chocolate cake, and caramelized banana tart.
He said it felt good to go out on a high note and was confident that his crew would find other good jobs. As for himself, he plans to “get out of the kitchen and into the places where the food is grown.”
He’s going to work with the Cornell Cooperative Extension program doing a little oystering, develop some products with the folks at Balsam Farms, and maybe play a little golf. Walter Struble plans on taking a little break with a trip to Peru. Kevin Penner is already well ensconced as the executive chef of 1770 House, East Hampton Point, and Cittanuova.
James Carpenter is the executive chef at the Living Room in East Hampton. He doesn’t worry about his former colleagues at Della Femina. “These people are hot commodities. They’re very talented and they’ll be in demand.”
There is no doubt that fellow chefs, such as Armando Guzman (15 years) will be snatched up by other establishments. The always smoothly professional waitstaff will also, no doubt, land on their feet, like David Knibb (seven years), Carl Dahl, who I feel like I watched grow up there, and the relatively new Brad Parker (one and a half years).
“People are going to call the restaurant Della Femina for many years,” said Mr. Carpenter. “It’s an iconic place. I’m sure Jerry’s going to do something fun. He has given all of us great opportunities.” The place was bought by the Hillstone Group, which owns many restaurants across the country. It will reopen as the East Hampton Grill.
And what is to become of the many caricatures lining the bar? The caricatures that are not just of celebrities like Billy Joel, Martha Stewart, Jeff Dell, and Ed Klein, but also Danny King and Ape Miller on the Flag Dory, a local doctor, Ralph Gibson, and a local artist, Leif Hope. The new owners plan to keep the Jerry and Judy drawings, but the rest are to be auctioned with proceeds to go to the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
“All of our local clientele have been coming in the last few nights. This place really did evolve into a community restaurant,” Mr. Rozzi said.
Mr. Della Femina admitted it is a bit sad. He’s been getting a lot of letters, but he cheerfully pointed out at the end of our conversation, “You know, I’ve got a lot of things I want to do. If you’re afraid of failure, you can’t succeed.”
Succeed Della Femina did. Ciao, bello.