From digging out quahogs in his boat along muddy shores to tossing them in a fiery pan in the kitchen, chef Al Quito has come to know all the ins and outs of running a seafood restaurant. After taking the reins of Quito’s as owner and chef in 1992, Al transformed the small mom and pop eatery on Bristol’s waterfront into a dining destination for local seafood and Italian-style cooking. Taking a break from the early rush of a Wednesday afternoon, Al shares with us his journey to becoming a chef and the four ingredients that make up his kitchen bible.
I understand your mother started Quito’s in 1954; what’s the story of your journey to becoming the chef and owner?
My mother ran a little eatery and takeout business here. She had three or four booths with a limited menu, like spaghetti and meatballs, clam cakes, fish and chips and fried clams. I lived in Maine for ten years and was working for the Weathervane restaurant in Kittery. I came back in ‘92 and made [the restaurant] a lot bigger. I always thought it was a nice location here and would be an ideal space for a little restaurant. I started off with a few tables in the front and expanded the menu. One of my buddies came in and helped me out. When he left about five years ago, I had to take over the reins and step it up.
How do you feel your experiences – from being a fisherman to owning a seafood restaurant – have impacted you as a chef?
Immensely. I’ve been in the shellfishing business for a long time. I know what it is to be on the boating end of it, the buying end of it and now I’m doing the cooking, which is probably the hardest part. But I know all the avenues: I can tell how the seafood has been treated, what kind of scallops are sold, which ones are dry and where to get the best littlenecks in the world – which, by the way, is right here in Narragansett Bay.
Are there ingredients you find yourself coming back to time and time again?
There are four ingredients everyone should have in their kitchen: salt, pepper, olive oil and garlic. Those four ingredients are my bible. You can make anything with them, any kind of dish – pasta, steak, chicken – you name it. I have those on hand at all times. And tomatoes. You have to have tomatoes, too.
Quito’s is well known for their fresh seafood and italian-style cooking. is there one dish on the menu that really captures both of these concepts?
I would say the Seafood Medley with red Mediterranean sauce over pasta. People like that one because it has a little zip to it. The sauce has garlic, tomatoes, Kalamata olives and pepperoncini, and then you have the fresh scallops, shrimp and littlenecks. It’s a very popular dish.
What are some menu items one wouldn’t expect to see at Quito’s?
[The restaurant] is a clam shack, but we have a lot of nice entrees that are creative and appealing. My daughter Alyssa will come up with these salads with walnuts, candied pecans and cranberries and I’m thinking, “What’re you doing? This is crazy.” But people are into [salads] right now. We try to keep true to the fresh seafood concept here, but [we have] organic chicken and Black Angus beef, too.
Now that Quito’s has opened up for the season, are there any changes we can expect to see at the restaurant?
We have new menus and new furniture for the patio. We also have new coffee coming in, an espresso machine so we can make cappuccinos, and gelato, which we introduced last year. Our next step is maybe putting a new deck on the roof with a bar and more seating. Once I build the deck, I’m going to remodel the front and make it into more of a retail space, like prepared foods and homemade sauces you can take home, and a bigger selection of gelato.
Aside from the restaurant, what other ventures do you have up your sleeve?
I have a lot going on right now. I’m bottling sauces that will be out [for sale] very soon. I’ve been working closely with the new food incubator in Warren, Hope & Main, and Tito’s Tacos. [There will be] three different sauces: marinara, oil and garlic and a zuppa blend.
411 Thames Street, Bristol