SENECA FALLS — Vegetables were on the endangered species list in the Seneca Falls home of the Caratozzolo family, at least when young Joe was growing up.
A self-admitted chef wannabe from the time he was about 6, Joe would get pumped by watching the cooking shows of superstars Emeril Lagasse or Graham Kerr and then wait for his parents, JoAnn and Joe Sr., to go off to bed.
Then the assault on the veggies would begin.
“I would watch them chop and flip pans [on TV],” Joe remembers, “so I would take all the vegetables in the house at 1 o’clock in the morning and chop them all up and sauté them ... and then throw them away.
“My mom would get up and wonder what the heck happened, but that’s how I learned to use a knife properly and how to flip a pan.”
Joe Caratozzolo laughed at the memory while relaxing in his office at the new del Lago Resort & Casino Tuesday. Workers buzzed around seemingly everywhere, all getting ready for this week’s opening.
Caratozzolo has been named the executive chef of The Sociale Café & Bar, the casino hotel’s main eatery. It’s a natural fit for the 34-year-old Mynderse Academy Class of 2001 graduate who grew up surrounded by great cooks in his large Italian- and Polish-American family.
He began his career in the restaurant business at the area’s most iconic diner, Connie’s in Waterloo, which just happened to be named for his grandmother and run by her and his grandfather Frank when he started there as a young bus boy. It was a job that lasted all of two days, he jokes.
“My uncles yelled at me because I was always standing in the kitchen watching them cook the whole time,” he said. “They made me a dishwasher so I could be in the kitchen.”
He moved his way up to prepping and then cooking at Connie’s and later worked at other area hot spots, such as the Deluxe in Geneva, Amandrea’s in Waterloo and The Gould and Henry B’s in Seneca Falls. It got him off and running on a whirlwind food journey that included stops in Biloxi, Miss.; New Orleans; New York City; and Italy.
He has worked at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, for celebrity chef John Besh (at his flagship Restaurant August in New Orleans), and for James Beard award winner Alon Shaya (helping open his famous Domenica, also in the Big Easy).
Along the way, he met his wife Yuet, a native of Hong Kong — they now have two children, a 2 1/2-year-old daughter and an 8-month-old son — and worked as a line chef, a sous chef, a steakhouse chef, a Japanese chef, an Italian chef ... and just about else everything in between. He also earned a degree at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan.
Joe returned to his hometown area a few years ago to be the personal chef for BonaDent and former Henry B’s owner Bruce Bonafiglia with the idea of possibly opening a restaurant someday. However, when he heard about plans for the Las Vegas-style del Lago, he decided to “hang out and wait to see” if he could land a job there instead.
Mission accomplished. Now, he finds himself working, as he says, “four minutes” from where he grew up — something he never envisioned when he was taking culinary classes at Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES while in high school.
“I wake up every day and I’m still kind of shocked,” Caratozzolo said. “I’ve been in the casino business roughly 10 years off and on, and to have something like this open up in my hometown is amazing.”
He has a brother, Anthony, who also works in the casino industry — for nearly 20 years at MGM — and another brother, Patrick, who works at BonaDent. His mom, who passed away about a year ago, was famous in Seneca Falls for her wedding cakes, and Joe adds, “all my uncles could cook, and all four of my grandparents could cook.”
“My grandmother (Faye Dombrowski) makes the best pies I’ve ever had in my life, to this day,” he says.
When Joe heard that another celebrity chef, Fabio Viviani, was going to be heading up Portico’s, del Lago’s primary restaurant, he got in touch with him the modern way — via social media and the networking site LinkedIn — and landed an invite to do a tryout tasting.
The menu for the tasting was not only mouth-watering but drawn from Caratozzolo’s varied experiences: warm mussel salad with citrus dressing; chickpea soup; yard egg raviolo (a potato pasta filled with ricotta, egg yolk and brown butter); halibut with a tomato agrodolce.
The result: He was hired.
However, instead of being placed in Portico’s, Caratozzolo was named executive chef of the hotel, which in addition to Sociale includes all banquets and room service.
Because the hotel won’t open until later this year, Joe has been helping to get the Farmers Market Buffet up and running along with a French Quarter-themed restaurant in The Vine, the casino’s entertainment venue.
He has been writing and rewriting the menus for Sociale, which technically is being called a “gastro-spa” — patrons can get a spa treatment and light fare, though neither the spa treatment nor a hotel stay will be necessary to dine there.
“I’m more excited about this restaurant than I have been with any restaurant that I’ve ever been involved with,” Joe said. “This will be the first time that I actually get to showcase my talents from the start. I’ve always taken over restaurants as an executive chef, and once a restaurant is started you kind of have to stick to their guidelines and what they’re doing.”
He says there will be a lot of seafood, a raw bar with oysters, along with “fresh, clean flavors, a lot of herbs, fresh vegetables.”
“I’m going to have some Latin American influence, some Asian influences,” he said. “It’s going to be casual but a little more refined than most casual restaurants around here. It won’t be stuffy — it’ll still be fun — and the plating will be very artistic but not off-putting.”
In other words, it will be a long way from the offerings at Connie’s. Then again, maybe it won’t.
The influences of working at the family diner still cling to him like pancake batter. It’s been a long, circuitous route, but Joe Caratozzolo has landed four minutes from home — literally and figuratively.
When Mike Cutillo is not trying to figure out how to make an agrodolce, he is the executive editor at the Finger Lakes Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (315) 789-3333, ext. 264.