Just like when he was a boy and his nonna Carmela guided his little hands, to chef Chris Scarduzio, making a meal is a feast for the senses.
All four of his grandparents hail from the Abruzzo region in Italy. Dad’s side settled in South Philadelphia while mom’s settled in Overbrook, West Philadelphia, St. Donato Parish.
The youngest of four, Chris and his parents John (Bucky) and mom Della Palma Scarduzio lived with grandmom Carmela and grandfather Donato Mazzenga. Both were the eldest of large families, and their tribes of siblings would visit often. The house was always full, and there was always something on the stove.
“Our kitchen was small, but constantly bustling. After mass on Sunday everyone would come over. The gravy would go on, and the cookies, wine, nuts, whiskey, would go out on the table. This would go on all day.
“My grandmother noticed it first, how cooking calmed me down and got me focused. I watched and learned as I went to work with her. After my dad died, from about 9 years old I never left her side. If she was cooking, I was next to her. Her signature dish is cavatelli, and she taught me how to make them from scratch.”
They didn’t go to the supermarket for food. Instead they had a garden, and the huckster calling out up and down the street with produce. The butcher was close. The ingredients were fresh and the cooking was constant. “I remember being woken up by the exquisite aroma and sound of garlic sizzling. I learned to be able to tell what they were cooking. At 7 years old I was getting that.”
After a few failed (thankfully) attempts at demolition, computer science, and painting; and thanks to his sister-in-law Roma’s great advice and neighborhood friends who petitioned Girard estates scholarships for fatherless boys, Chris was able to take the Culinary Institute of America up on their prestigious invitation. He felt a little out of place as he made his way the 4.5 hours to Poughkeepsie in his old orange Volkswagen Rabbit with his map, a trash bag full of clothes in the back, two meatball sandwiches and a pocket of quarters his grandmother gave him. Two and a half years later, when Georges Perrier spoke at his graduation, Chris asked him for a job at Le Bec Fin. He said no.
Chris started as sous chef of the dining room at the original Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia. Shortly after, he was promoted to chef of their restaurant next door, the Grill Room. As the compliments and awards came in, buzz grew. At one award ceremony, Perrier was also being recognized. Chris approached him again: “I’d love to come work for you.” Again he told him no.
A few years later, a friend at the Ritz asked Chris to consult at his country club. One Saturday morning the chef was cooking a caprese omelet for Perrier. Chris stopped the process and took over. The kitchen staff thought it was too raw, and Perrier demanded to know who made his omelet. “That was the best omelet I ever had.” Chris reminded him of their last two meetings, and this third time was the charm. Perrier offered Chris the job as sous chef for his brand new venture, Brasserie Perrier.
The press and nominations kept rolling in: Top 20, James Beard, WSJ, Inquirer, etc.; and the Scarduzio Perrier partnership continued to flourish as they added Mia Caesars Atlantic City and Table 31. Chris also had Scarduzios at Showboat.
With the constant running back and forth between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, it eventually felt as if he was away from the stoves too much; and the timing was perfect when, as he and his partners sold Table 31, his current partner Alberto Guadagnini gave him a call.
By his side since he was 17 and she 15, his wife Darlene and Chris started a new chapter when after much discussion and prayer, Chris went into a new partnership with Teca in 2014. “It’s been a fantastic partnership. I’m much closer to home and I’m cooking a lot more. There are people in the kitchen and dining room that have been with me for over 25 years and clients and friends that have been dining with me for over 35 years.”
Events are like a chapter book with many old neighborhood friends (who are like extended family) visiting to celebrate their life stories. Monumental events like baby showers, baptisms, birthday parties, graduations, going away parties, engagements, weddings, funerals and more.
Chris watches guests progress through rites of passage and life events, and listens to them share their memories.
“I love it. I really do. Being close to home, the partnership, being here, the food, the clients. I’m back to my Italian roots. It’s like a rebirth, an arrival. There’s no static. I get calls and messages sometimes saying ‘thank you chef for your influence in my journey.’ And that is one of the best parts of being in this business.”
And through it all, grandmom is still in the kitchen with him and her cavatelli are on the menu. “I take her wherever I go.”
Chris Scarduzio is award-winning chef and partner of Teca restaurant in Newtown Square. He and his wife have three children; Christopher, Anthony and Mia. They plan on another visit to Italy soon.