Nick and Toni’s: Fine Food With a Family Heart

An early proponent of the slow-food movement, the restaurant formed relationships with local farmers and fishermen
Jeffrey and Ina Garten, who was an early fan and supporter of Nick and Toni’s restaurant, left, with Mark Smith and Toni Ross. Below, Ms. Ross and Jeff Salaway

Nick and Toni’s opened on Aug. 3, 1988, long before foodies started using smartphones to take photos of exquisitely-plated entrees to share on social media. Yet, even on day one, the restaurant had a following. “We didn’t tell anyone we were opening, but apparently people were driving by really curious, and waiting for the lights to go on,” said Toni Ross, who founded the restaurant with her late husband, Jeff Salaway, whose nickname was Nick.  

The North Main Street, East Hampton, location Mr. Salaway had chosen for the couple’s first foray into restaurant ownership wasn’t exactly hallowed culinary ground. Its most memorable inhabitant was Ma Bergman’s pizza and meatball place, and the space itself was disheveled. “I have no idea what Jeff loved about it,” said Ms. Ross. “It was small, the floors were awful, the walls were really bad. I guess he just saw it as a cool blank slate. When I saw it, I was like, ‘You’re kidding me.’ ”

“Jeff did all the demolition himself, and then we hired people and got friends to help us,” said Ms. Ross. The couple, both artists who had met in Italy and worked in restaurants in New York City, wanted to create a spot that would serve the kind of food they had discovered during their travels north of Tuscany. The cuisine, which had yet to become popular stateside, would feature dishes such as beet ravioli with poppy seeds, spaghetti with lemon, and calf’s liver and onions. 

“The simplicity of the food was a hard thing to grasp as a young chef,” said Joe Realmuto, who joined the restaurant in the early 1990s, and, now as executive chef and a co-owner, oversees the kitchens at Nick and Toni’s and its sister restaurants, Rowdy Hall in East Hampton, Townline BBQ in Sagaponack, and La Fondita in Amagansett. “It can be just three ingredients on a plate, but you use really good ingredients. That’s one main thing that has stayed the same since the restaurant’s beginning.”

An early proponent of the slow-food movement, the restaurant formed relationships with local farmers and fishermen, who supplied fresh seasonal produce and the catches of the day. Mr. Salaway also planted an herb garden on-site, where it remains. “Jeff rototilled that himself with his skinny little legs and his boots and his shorts,” recalled Ms. Ross. “I have very distinct memories of that.”

After a few years of running the restaurant at a loss, Mark Smith, who previously worked in the hosiery industry, was brought on to help Nick and Toni’s turn a profit. “Mark had pretty much everything that we did not, such as business acumen, ideas about systems, consistency, staffing,” said Ms. Ross. “It was really a lot about reining in Jeff’s creativity so that it worked in a business model. Mark righted the ship.” 

 Then, in 2001, the restaurant faced an existential crisis when Mr. Salaway died in a car accident. “That’s when everybody’s world changed personally and professionally,” said Mr. Smith. “It was a very uncertain time because he was the face of the restaurant to a large degree.”  

While coping with her loss, Ms. Ross left Nick and Toni’s in the hands of Mr. Smith, Mr. Realmuto, Christie Cober, director of operations, and Bonnie Munshin, who managed the floor. “I couldn’t be present at all because I had young kids,” she said. “But Mark, Joe, Christie, and Bonnie understood the mission completely, so I never worried about it. They kept it the mom and pop place that Jeff and I had started.”

Mr. Smith said the death of Mr. Salaway made him determined to build the Honest Management group, which owns and operates Nick and Toni’s and the other restaurants, into an organization sturdy enough to withstand such an unexpected setback. The company went on to open Townline BBQ, start a catering company, and shut down the Nick and Toni’s Cafe in the city. 

By the end of this year, a new restaurant, Coche Comedor, an offshoot of La Fondita, will open in the space next door to it, which was once the Honest Diner. 

Even as the business grows, the Nick and Toni’s ethos of creating a family atmosphere, both for its customers and its employees, remains. The restaurant is committed to staying open year-round to serve its clientele and to provide work for its staff. “It’s an investment that we make in people,” said Ms. Ross.  

“You can’t create a family atmosphere from Memorial Day to Labor Day,” said Ms. Cober. “Our staff knows who the people are coming in, they have real relationships with our guests. That happens on a continuum over 30 years.”

Instead of spending money on an anniversary celebration this summer, the restaurant group donated money to local charities such as OLA (Organizacion Latino-Americana) of Eastern Long Island, which supports the East End’s Latino and Hispanic community, the Springs School’s chapter of Blessings in a Backpack, which provides food assistance, and the Community Council of East Hampton, a social services agency. 

Diners who happened to be at Nick and Toni’s on the anniversary weekend did get treated to glasses of champagne in honor of the milestone. “A lot of customers were reminiscing about this place as part of their own history,” said Ms. Ross, who shared one of her most vivid memories from the restaurant’s opening night. 

“The first person to walk through the door was Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food critic,” she said. “He was retired then, but he could still make or break a restaurant. I was working the door, and I thought, ‘Well, okay, this is over, we’ll finish off tonight and then pack up and go home.’ ” 

As it turned out Mr. Claiborne became one of Nick and Toni’s earliest devotees, returning often and bringing companions. He even offered pointers on how the restaurant could improve. “It was amazing,” said Ms. Ross. “We were really lucky.”

Joseph Realmuto, the longtime chef at Nick and Toni’s, at left with Toni Ross and Mark Smith, stood by the restaurant’s iconic wood-burning oven with a mosaic designed by Eric Fischl.
Mr. Realmuto and Mr. Smith in the garden behind the restaurant, which has played a significant role in their farm-to-table ethos. Eric Striffler Photos