Chef’s Story: Tony Saccoccia at The Grill on Main

Martha’s Vineyard has lots of restaurants, and in each one there’s a top-of-the-line chef. Each week, the Chef’s Story will introduce you to these culinary wonders and share with you their stories.

Antonio Saccoccia, more commonly known as Tony, first owned and operated The Feast of Chilmark in the 90s, and currently owns The Grill on Main in Edgartown.

MVT: How did you come to be on the Island?

Tony: I think, like everybody who wasn’t born here, I came for a summer job and stayed. That was 26 years ago, in 1988.

How and when did you start cooking?

I grew up in the industry. My dad owned a butcher shop. So, as a child I was doing that kind of work. In junior high, I had worked in some restaurants. Then I went to a vocational high school. Baking and butchering was there since I was a child. I baked on my own in high school and junior high.

How did you come to be at The Grill on Main?

I owned another restaurant in Chilmark, The Feast of Chilmark, for 12 years in the 1990s. I sold that, and this location [Upper Main] was available. So I came here.

Have you ever had a major cooking disaster?

I’ve had many. And you can say that. But the one I remember best was when I was delivering a wedding cake on a warm day. I slowed down [in the car] a little too quickly, and the layers slipped apart from each other. It was one of those days where it got to around 85 degrees in June. Between the car not having enough air conditioning and the icing and…well, it wasn’t too fast of a stop. Just too fast for carrying a wedding cake.

I had to do a whole new one. I was delivering it early. I mean, you don’t want to be messing around in case something like that would happen. I was able to redecorate and pull together a whole new wedding cake. And I was on time.

What is your favorite Martha’s Vineyard dining memory?

The most spectacular thing was when President Bill Clinton came into my old restaurant. I don’t remember another night like that in my career. We found out he was coming only thirty-five minutes before. In fact, we had written it off. We kept thinking, “He could be coming. He could be coming.” That’s what a lot of restaurants were saying. Then we said, “Ah, I guess he’s not coming.” He tricked us.

It was in September and he came in late in the evening, so we didn’t have to close the restaurant. He ate warm goat cheese stuffed Anaheim peppers. We were very excited, but we realized that what was called for was professionalism – one hundred percent. We were all ready. Nobody blinked.

What is the single best bite you’ve eaten in the past week?

I would say a particular sauce I was experimenting with for a new free range chicken dish. I just did it on a whim and was really impressed with it. The chicken was pan seared, and I left it in the pan to make a pan gravy, old fashioned style. I put in pancetta, mushrooms, shallots, just a little bit of chicken stock, cream, butter, fines herbes [a combination of parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil, that together are the foundation of French cooking], and I just let it reduce for a second. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to detail, but it was just spectacular. It’s one of those things that should be good, but when you taste it – wow.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your girlfriend?

We’re both on health kicks, so we’re cooking healthy dishes at home lately. What does she like the best? She’s either being polite or friendly, but – everything. You know it’s kind of special for a restaurateur having a night off and cooking food at home. It’s very unique. When we are cooking at home, regardless of what it is, it’s very special to be home and cooking together.

What are your top five indispensable ingredients?

Salt, pepper, butter, onions (or members of the onion family), and veal stock.

Your favorite kitchen tool?

The food processor. I have a Cuisinart. When I was receiving my professional training, they had just come out. I’m able to make certain short doughs in them. I can make great emulsifications, like salad dressings. That used to be such a task. That’s huge for me. Whisking by hand, you never had the same emulsion or, if you did, you really had to pay attention to it. Definitely chopping nuts. With the food processor it’s just so quick.

Using local Vineyard produce, fish, game, and so forth, describe the perfect Martha’s Vineyard Feast.

It’s huge when the striped bass is in season – it’s such a short season, so it makes it even more precious. The oyster farms in Katama are fantastic. I’ve been dealing with Sweet Neck Farms for about 25 years – not just for oysters, but other shellfish. I’d serve the oysters raw on the half-shell or, my favorite all time, baked oysters Rockefeller classic. It still is unbelievable, even though the dish is close to 75 years old. I would pan sear, then slow roast the striped bass – a double cooking method. I’d keep the sauce simple – maybe a simple citrus beurre blanc.

In the summertime, I would grill vegetables. Summer squash and asparagus. For dessert, the one I really love over the Fourth of July, old fashioned strawberry shortcakes. On a biscuit with soft vanilla whipped cream. It’s so old, but so good. It’s honest. You know what you’re getting, and it’s so good.

What is your idea of a perfect day off, on Martha’s Vineyard?

Definitely, a good day off would be going sailing early, then taking it easy and focusing on a big dinner night. Or the beach. I do love the beach.