for Best Chefs America
“It was a home away from home,” Russo says. “I was excited to be there. It was natural to me.”
His parents told him that going into the restaurant business as an adult, which he inevitably did, would always be an option. First he had to get a degree. They viewed education as a necessity.
Russo studied finance at Seton Hall University and traveled across Europe cooking and learning about food — in Switzerland, Italy, France, and Germany — before starting Sette. Sette is an intimate, upscale Italian food experience that people flock to in Bernardsville, NJ.
His restaurant has around 30 seats. Russo says running a small restaurant is manageable. He gets to focus on guest rapport, just like his father. If he overhears the words “anniversary," “birthday,” or “promotion,” his team goes out of its way to recognize the occasion. Exceptional service is one way he makes his restaurant formal.
“It’s important that my staff and I are genuine,” the Best Chef says about his efforts. “We aren’t going through the motions.”
If he looks for one trait in his co-workers, it’s passion. Then comes professionalism, respect, the willingness to work as a team, the desire to learn, and the sense of urgency.
Sette is BYOB. Russo says he surveyed customers at Da Filippo's about drink programs and people said they prefer to bring their own to dinner. He's comfortable with that decision. Business school taught him to listen to the demand.
It's for this reason there's no bar in his restaurant. Some places, like Tao Las Vegas (the most profitable restaurant in the US), make up to 75 percent of their income from alcohol sales. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the average restaurant nets about 30 percent. Even without selling beer, wine, and cocktails, Russo makes his ends meet.
Sette was nationally recognized in 2016 by Open Table as one of the top 100 restaurants in the country. Customers online call it genuinely warm, elegant, and delicious — a gem in the Bernardsville countryside. The food Russo cooks reminds people of the dishes they’d eat in Ligura and on the Almafi coast, all across Italy. The region where each dish comes from is labeled on the menu.
That’s one way Sette differs from Da Filippo's. Da Filippo's focuses on Southern Sicilian cuisine. Sette highlights food from every gastronomic culture in Italy.
At Sette, Russo cooks family recipes that have been honed throughout generations. You won’t see lowest common denominator Italian dishes like fried mozzarella on the menu. You’ll find interpretations of gallinetto stracotto — seared hen with roasted tomato, caramelized cippolini, sage, and a marsala jus. Then there’s the maialino brasato — roasted porchetta with juniper berries, pancetta, and an aromatic filling. Guests rave about his renditions of classic dishes like bruschetta and gnocchi.
Russo uses simple, fresh ingredients and the right measurements and ingredient combinations to create nuances of complexity in his food.
“We do not try to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “This is the beauty of Italian cuisine.”