Pomodori: An Inspired Italian Eatery
From Pink Magazine | Author: Lynnie Leavenworth
My grandmother was a chef in the 1950s for a high school in Ohio of 2,000 people,” said Amanda Russ, owner and chef of Pomodori, her Italian eatery on Hilton Head Island. “This is when they really made the food from scratch. They weren’t opening cans.
They were boiling the pasta, they were making the sauces, rolling the meatballs. It was almost as though Russ’s first generation, Italian-American Grandma Cappy (derived from her last name Capuzello) knew she was turning Russ toward her destiny when she infused her granddaughter’s soul with the scents and tastes of the family’s homeland.
“I lost her when I was eight, but even in my youngest, most formative years, I remember walking into her kitchen, and it was like the Willy Wonka of food. There would be salami and garlic hanging from the ceiling. There would be a fresh lasagna and three pizzas and a baked ziti, pies, cookies. And the smells were unbelievably amazing. You walked in and all you could do was smile. I remember it vividly. I remember her, I remember what she felt like when I hugged her, I remember what she smelled like, and I remember when she helped me stir the pot.”
It wasn’t exactly a direct route to cooking, and eventually Pomodori for Russ. “I moved to Charleston to take the LSAT and I ended up cooking. I worked for the Neighborhood Dining Group (NDG) who owns Husk and McCrady’s, and I was able to work a couple of times with Sean Brock. I was around when he won his James Beard.” Brock’s 2010 James Beard award placed him among the country’s finest chefs and created a spark in Russ. “He would take you up above McCrady’s; there would be dried herbs hanging that came from his farm. There would be plants that he had cross-pollinated and made. There would be meat curing. It was like the [George] Peabody Library of food, and it’s from this man who eats, sleeps, and breathes it.”
Still calling him her “chief,” Russ most associates her path with NDG’s Rod Ward. “He is the bridge who got me there. He sat me down when I was waitressing at the restaurant and he said, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘I think I want to cook.’” Ward put her in the kitchen, which eventually led to what seemed like a nearly inevitable move to Italy, where she studied with Chef John Nocita.
The lessons about food Russ learned from her grandmother, and Brock, and Ward, seemed to manifest in Nocita. “He is my maestro. I studied with him for a year. He taught us about using every part of something—not wasting. He was very inventive, and he plated food beautifully. He really was probably the first person I worked with directly that took art into account. That’s just who he was; he was an artist.”
Well-educated and inspired, Russ envisioned Pomodori. “I knew from the beginning that if I didn’t ask people for help, and surround myself with people who knew more than I did, it was never going to work.” When developing her auspicious menu, Russ said, “Alfred [Kettering] said, write down everything you could possibly want to make and then edit it all down and pick just a few things.” The iconic Hilton Head Island chef and owner of Alfred’s Restaurant helped Russ find her focal point: wickedly delicious Italian cuisine. “In the beginning, I remember thinking it has to be simple and it has to be perfect, because you really don’t get a second shot to make a first impression.” Following Kettering’s advice, Russ tested her menu to perfection. With the aid of her mother’s impeccable palate, the flavors perfectly conjure the tastes of her grandmother’s cooking. “My mother likes things to taste like her mother’s. I knew if a dish wasn’t going to work, she would be the one to tell me.”
Salsiccia con arrabiata e penne, vitello di giorno, torta di mascarpone: What goes on the plates at Pomodori reflects the people and the passions in Russ’s world. “My food is like a portal to my soul. It’s what I value. It’s simplicity. It’s honesty. It’s honoring the ingredients. It’s fresh and beautiful food, and colors, and textures coming together. It’s all the aspects of my life that I want to see reflected.”
After four years, Russ is still surprised by the success of it all, giving much of the credit to her team, who are like family, and the customers who support them week after week. She described bar manager Nate Schuppert as the quintessential barman; masterfully manning the bar and wine list from day one, and like herself, remembering every face. “We have great food, and we have a great staff,” Russ said. “Our customers want to support this whole thing. It’s not one thing. It’s all things together. It was a very divine experience that came together and made this beautiful place.
“I want to make this the best possible restaurant it can be—build a legacy—have it always be here and mean the same thing, and stand for the same thing; that would be a testament.” A testament to the ingredients, the people, and the path that inspired Amanda Russ to create Pomodori. Grazie Grandma Cappy.