Kitchen life is not easy. In fact, it can be downright grueling. Chefs arrive early to order food, plan menus, then prep the food, and have late hours to finish dinner service and clean a professional kitchen—only to get up the next morning and do it all over again. They’re on their feet during entire shifts, so physical stamina is a must in the industry.
Each month we choose to talk to many professionals behind our favorite Wilmington eateries, to hear a little about their stories, and find out how they arrived at their current stoves. This month we feature two downtown chefs, within a stone’s throw of each other: Zackery Comis of 2nd Street’s new Italian restaurant, Tarantelli’s, and Josh Seward of Wilmington staple, Aubriana’s, which has just transitioned into a fine-dining steakhouse.
Chef at Tarantelli’s Ristorante Italiano
102 S. 2nd St. • (910) 763-3806
Comis in Italian means “prep cook.” Yet, it’s not the role Zackery Comis plays at Tarantelli’s Ristorante Italiano, the new Italian restaurant gourmands are raving about in downtown Wilmington. In fact, this Comis is the executive chef who oversees five other cooks.
“I thank God every day Zack is our executive chef,” owner Ryan Morabito says. “He has a passion for the culinary arts and an innate ability to teach and mentor others who aspire to grow in their profession. His command of the kitchen is impressive, and he’s extremely well-respected and admired by his colleagues.”
Morabito recalls a day when one customer was brought to tears after ordering the Sicilian Braciole. “He commented he hadn’t tasted sauce like that since his mom passed away,” Morabito tells.
Four times a year, Tarantelli’s does a wine-tasting dinner which highlights different regions of Italy. The last soiree focused on Tuscany, and Comis made an appetizer of wild boar and porcini-mushroom Ravi with Asiago and ricotta tortellinis.
“One couple who had just toured Tuscany kept raving about how the tortellini was truly authentic,” Comis tells, “and better than what they tasted in Italy.”
Hailing from Pikes Peak Culinary Academy in Colorado Springs, Comis worked in a couple of scratch kitchens before landing the position of chef de tournant at the Broadmoor Resort’s Penrose Room in Colorado Springs. This five-star, five-diamond restaurant specialized in French cuisine and taught him everything about fine dining. While there, Comis served a host of VIPs, including Presidents George Bush, Sr., George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all who shook his hand.
“At the Penrose, I learned that center-of-the-plate presentations, garnishes, sauces, and other components are critical in making food appealing to the eye,” Comis notes.
But he also knew he was heading east. His wife Leigh was expecting their first child and had family in North Carolina. Comis felt right at home when he sat down with Tarantelli’s owners Ryan and Kim Morabito and Erika (Ryan’s sister) and Jason Henderson. He heard their family story of preserving and enhancing fine Italian cooking.
“Erika is a real foodie and a big help in organizing old family recipes and menus,” Comis notes. “I took those menus and made them work. There is creative freedom and mutual respect between the owners and me.”
Except for the signature Tarantelli’s meatball recipe (using whole-stewed pork loin), and the sacrosanct Tarantelli’s spaghetti sauce (using sweet and hot sausages), the owners welcome Comis’ innovative ideas.
Jon Hagglund, Tarantelli’s sous chef, previously worked at The Bazaar by José Andrés Restaurant in Beverly Hills, California. He appreciates Comis’ extreme innovation in the kitchen and calls him a fabulous mentor in Italian cooking. The whole crew is one of the most motivated groups he’s known.
For 29-year-old Comis, it all started in his grandmother’s kitchen. Sandra Comis taught her grandson to play with dough.
“She had greenhouses and was a real believer in the concept of farm-to-table cooking,” Comis explains. “Consequently, I use as much local produce and seafood as possible and try to support local businesses.”
The chef rotates both daily and seasonal specials, always with a fresh, local catch of the day. For spring he’s added to the antipasti menu a grilled Chianti chicken with Asiago arancini (risotto balls, packed with garlic, onion, breadcrumbs and flavorful cheeses). Paired with Comis’ favorite bruschetta (Tuscan bread topped with mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, garlic, olive oil, and sea salt), sautéed mussels, and pizza dough knots baked in an authentic Italian stone oven, and the stage is set for dining decadence.
Two soups are offered: pasta e fagioli, Tarantelli’s own cannellini bean and pasta recipe, and Comis’ minestrone del nord, a specially cooked northern-style soup. To the traditional insalata menu, Comis is adding fresh kale, sugar-snap peas, and heirloom grape-tomato salad served over roasted garlic with ricotta.
Pasta lovers will delight in nine different choices, including the Tarantelli recipe for pappardelle, and Comis’ favorite, taglietelle, which is thinner than fettuccine. Spaghetti al formaggio Parmigiano is an Italian specialty made with flamed whiskey and melted Parmigiana cheese, served tableside from an authentic Italian cheese wheel.
“The difference in our homemade noodles and dehydrated noodles is the superior ability of fresh pasta to absorb the flavors of the sauces,” he said.
Comis has developed personal relationships with local seafood store owners, and relies on their good judgement for his catch of the day. Shellfish are served in a variety of ways in wine, marinara and buttery cheese sauces over pasta or risotto. Comis’ new favorite is wild-caught scallops over roasted garlic Parmesan risotto and lemon-grilled asparagus. He’s also partial to the golden tilefish, a white flaky filet that has a mild citrus flavor.
And what’s an Italian restaurant without the standard pie. Tarantelli’s serves a traditional assortment of le nostre pizze. Comis spruces up the flavor profiles, as tasted in a citrus-roasted, shaved fennel and sliced prosciutto with Asiago and fontina cheese on a whipped ricotta crust, flavored with roasted garlic oil.
The grand finale—or dolce e pasticceria—is in the capable hands of pastry chef Geneva Dalton (Le Cordon Blue College of Culinary Arts, Atlanta, GA), who works closely with Comis in the kitchen. There are always new offerings on the dessert menu, like limoncello and raspberry parfait, or the Tarantelli’s own banana and coconut cream pies.
Tarantelli’s is open daily from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations can be made in advance. —Linda Grattafiori
Chef for Aubriana’s Prime Steaks and Seafood
115 S. Front St. • (910) 763-7773
When 9/11 happened, Josh Seward was fresh out of high school and pondering the right path for his future. He couldn’t shake the aftereffect of the attack personally.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I joined the Coast Guard,” he recalls. Stationed in Hawaii, luckily, Seward was never called to war. He maintained the position of boatswain’s mate, and helped with maintenance, small operations, navigation, and supervising personnel on the ship’s deck force.
“Mainly, we made sure Russian ships weren’t trolling the water,” he says—something eerily needed more today, some 15 years later since Seward’s departure from the military. “I only signed a three-year contract,” he admits. “I wasn’t interested in a military career as much as the GI Bill.”
Upon his honorable discharge, he juggled the decision of where and what to study. He considered being a cop but found something more appealing on the campus of St. Paul Minnesota’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. “I hadn’t had too much experience in the restaurant industry beforehand,” he tells. “Aside from working at a pizza place and a Dairy Queen, I cooked powdered mashed potatoes and slop in the military, but that’s about it.”
Still, he was good in the kitchen—specifically at grilling. His passion slowly grew with each job as a chef. He began by doing banquets after graduation before moving into the kitchen at the fine-dining steakhouse Capital Grille in Indianapolis. “It was a good place to work,” he tells. “They took pride in top-notch ingredients and the finest cuts of meats.”
Thus was born the chef Seward would go on to become: someone who appreciates an old-school approach to dining. Seward works in simple, tried-and-true preparation with crème de la crème ingredients, served in filling portions. He isn’t impressed by the trends of modern-day fine dining that deliver smaller serving sizes of food made with modern gastronomical techniques or products that fancify flavors.
“We have meat glue and other chemicals in storage that was once used,” he says. “And we may pull it out sometimes, but mostly we rely on the best ingredients to showcase the best cuisine.”
For Seward that looks like a bone-in ribeye, grain-fed and aged to near perfection. The way the fat shrinks in the aging process allows for the flavor to intensify throughout the meat.
“It’s not like a grocery-store steak,” he tells. “It literally melts in your mouth in every bite. And I only order whole loins when it comes to our butcher’s selection of the week; so everyone who orders it gets a cut from the same animal. Every bite will taste the same among the whole table to create that quintessential steakhouse experience.”
The 35-year-old moved from Chicago, where he worked in a fine-dining Hilton, in October 2016 with his wife and their two sons to fulfill their dream of living on the coast. They had visited Topsail numerous times during vacations. When the chef position opened at Aubriana’s in downtown Wilmington, owner Carol Roggeman knew Seward would be a good fit. Roggeman already hired a general manager, Nicole Boudrieau, in June 2016, who also had steakhouse experience. Boudrieau was finessing the fine-dining approach with veteran servers, to make sure they were attending to customers’ needs as if they were the most important people in the world. Among such servers is Hank Shull, a lifer in the local fine-dining industry who has worked at Aubriana’s for five years now.
“The steakhouse experience starts with front-of-the-house,” Seward praises. “That’s what customers see when they first come in: the servers, the linens, the cleanliness of a restaurant. How the servers give their spiel and how good they are at remembering everything and knowing every detail of the restaurant as a whole. Answering every little question. Hank has been an invaluable voice. He has let us know firsthand customer responses to the switch we made into a steakhouse. They have responded well to larger portion sizes and preparations. We have pulled up our Open Table rating from a 4 to a 4.8.”
Seward calls Aubriana’s improvements a team effort. He leads by example, first and foremost, culling knowledge from the 12-week course program on restaurant management at Le Cordon Bleu. But the real learning experiences came from all of his on-the-job training.
“Seeing how your chefs treat you and then how you want to treat people, it counts for a lot because why would you want to make the same mistakes as someone who you didn’t like working for?” he asks rhetorically. “Choose how you want to work and the people will come to you—ones you can rely on.”
That’s what happened when his sous chef, Dewayne Hickman, came on board shortly after Seward took the executive chef position. Hickman has experience from DC and makes homemade pasta, apparent in a ravioli dish of diver sea scallops and wild mushrooms. “He will help me devise our new summer menu to debut in June,” Seward explains.
While cuts of meat are prime items to focus on, the team has kept fresh seafood on the menu to feed pescetarian palates. Currently, they serve a majority of their seafood from the gulf of Florida; however, with the new season kicking in for local fisherman, Seward will be working with Seaview Crab Company more in coming months. Plus, they’ll be upgrading vegetables from the bounty offered by local farmers.
“On our cheese and charcuterie plates, currently, we have NC soft cheeses,” he says. “But that changes weekly. I’ll mix in hard cheeses from France as well, to go with items like boar sausage or duck pepperoni.”
Aubriana’s now serves a coriander-crusted rack of lamb, as well as cedar-plank salmon or roasted mahogany-smoked chicken. There are composite plates, served with sides, but Seward wants to switch to a la carte in the future—in true steakhouse fashion.
“There is something primal and delicious about showcasing just a plate of the meat you’ve cooked to perfection,” he says. “I like that dining experience: where the protein comes separate from the sides and you can choose only to eat the meat or share with family and friends.”
Seward is also looking forward to preparing the USDA Prime Midwest grain-fed beef, aged at least 21 days, in a broiler. The restaurant will be upgrading equipment as to give the option of having the meat grilled or broiled.
“When aged steaks like this are broiled, the heat comes from the top rather than the flame searing from the bottom,” he explains. “Therefore, the flavor is still preserved in the meat, rather than dripping to the bottom of a grill.”
Steaks can be prepared one of many ways. While traditional butter and salt and pepper will fill the palate for old-school preferences, Seward is partial to the porcini rub. Customers can also choose a Kona rub and shallot butter or, in pure decadence, add foie gras.
The upgrades and changes to Aubriana’s haven’t come at the price of loyal favorites, however. Customers can still find their famed lamb lollipops, mussels and peanut-butter pie. But they’ll also get a bite of newer soup ju jours, daily sliders (which can be anything from fried catfish to pulled pork to tenderloin), cheese and charcuterie, and desserts.
Aubriana’s is open Tuesday through Saturday for dinner only, beginning at 5 p.m. Reservations are accepted. —Shea Carver