PAWCATUCK — The distinctive aroma of Italian cooking is the unofficial greeter at the door of Hoof’s Italian Restaurant & Bar at 59 West Broad St.
“That’s the first thing customers get — the smell of garlic,” said restaurant co-owner Nick Ferraro, 21.
“And basil and rosemary,” agreed Nick’s brother, co-owner Brian Ferraro, 20.
The brothers, who live in Westerly, sat at a table in the bar, decorated in reds, burgundies and dark wood, on Tuesday afternoon before the restaurant opened.
Joining them were the chef, Miguel Tlatenchi, and his brother Manuel Tlatenchi, the sous chef, also of Westerly.
“We use fresh herbs, fresh meat, a lot of local ingredients,” said Miguel, 30. “Everything is homemade — the pastas, the desserts.”
"We feel free here to cook food and to do everything,” said Manuel, 24.
Manuel makes the desserts and Brian, laughing, said, “I'm the taste tester just for the desserts because I eat a lot.”
The menu is bursting with traditional Italian fare, like meatballs, antipasti, linguine and clams, and cheese tortellini.
“Veal parm and the pork chop Calabrese are the most popular”, said Brian. The menu changes every few months, depending on the season.
“We do a lot of seafood specials now but more in the summer,” said Nick.
The specials provide a space for the kitchen to branch out and offer customers different items each week. “We try to do a different kind of fish and a different kind of meat every weekend,” Miguel said. “A lot of what we do is a fusion of Latin and Italian food.”
He added that standing out as an Italian restaurant isn’t easy.
“We’re trying to do something different,” said Miguel. “In this area it’s hard to catch people. There are a lot of Italian restaurants with the same flavors over and over.”
The Ferraro brothers bought the restaurant, a former bistro and Shea's Office Supplies long before that, in June and opened in September.
The decor of the 75-seat space required some cleanup but not extensive work prior to opening.
“Most of this was like this, we painted and cleaned stuff up,” said Nick.
A remodeling project for the bar is planned for February and will expand the seating space, said Brian.
The Ferraros developed their passion for food when they worked at Tony D’s in New London — Nick for three years and Brian for six months.
They named the restaurant for their father, John Ferraro, whose nickname is The Hoof because of the size of his feet. The business employs about 19 people, including seven waiters, two bartenders and three cooks as well as dishwashers, food-runners and bussers.
With an open kitchen and a stone floor, the volume in the restaurant can be high at times.
“Friday and Saturday, it’s loud,” Brian said, but Nick said it was less so during the week.
The atmosphere is friendly, with customers and regulars often commenting on their dining experience.
“Everybody does it — they just walk over and say that was a great meal,” said Nick.
Miguel said interacting with the customers was one of the highlights of the job. “You feel great when people come over and give you a compliment on the food,” he said.
He said that when the food goes out to a table, he can see the customers as they take their first bite. “You can see from their expression how the food is,” he said. “You can see if they’re happy.”
Miguel said he knew he wanted to work with Brian and Nick from the first moment they were introduced by a mutual friend.
“When we were talking the first time and I met them, they said they wanted to do something different,” Miguel said. “I liked their passion because I’ve been working in this business for 10 years.”
All four men nodded in agreement.
“It’s like a family here with these guys,” said Miguel.