When Nello Gioia opened the doors of Ristorante Bergamo in 1986, places to eat were scarce on Main Street. Now numbering among 120 restaurants in downtown Greenville, Bergamo has survived the test of time, winning a loyal base of regulars who keep coming back for Chef Nello’s traditional northern Italian fare.
Last year, however, Gioia decided to retire, and Chef Gian Pietro Ferro—who moved toNew York from Italy in 1987—has stepped up to the stoves to carry on Nello’s legacy. A mutual friend put the two chefs in touch by phone, knowing that they both hail from the area around Bergamo in northern Italy. But they never met until last year, when that same friend informed Gian Pietro that Nello was looking to sell his restaurant.
Ferro and his wife drove down to Greenville from their home in New Jersey last spring. As luck would have it, the day they met with Nello was the day before the national lockdown. So the couple went back north, where Ferro was working as a chef/consultant in New York, to wait out the pandemic. Ferro returned in early June, right after Bergamo reopened, and on October 1st, he purchased the restaurant.
Gian Pietro was 10 when he started to work in his uncle’s restaurant, and it wasn’t long before he fell in love with cooking. When discussing his culinary style, the chef makes the distinction between what he calls “American-Italian food” and “100 percent Italian,” the food he grew up eating. The former includes dishes like chicken parmesan and spaghetti and meatballs that many Americans mistakenly take for bona fide Italian fare, but which, Ferro points out, don’t exist in Italy.
“When you go to [an Italian restaurant in] New Jersey, your meal comes with a side order of pasta. What is that?” Ferro’s query brings to mind The Big Night, a 1996 film about two brothers who move from Italy to open an authentic Italian restaurant in Baltimore down the street from an Italian-American eatery. One night, an American customer asks for a side of pasta with his risotto, and Chef Primo throws a fit in the kitchen. When I ask the chef if he’s ever seen the movie, his wife, Kathleen, bursts into laughter. “It’s our favorite! That’s him,” she declares, drawing a parallel between her husband and the film’s fictitious chef. Turns out Ferro actually consulted for the movie when he was working at Fiorello in New York City.
Like Chef Primo, Ferro remains true to his Italian roots. “Tomato sauce is for pasta,” he maintains. “Marinara is a pizza sauce. If you call spaghetti ‘marinara,’ it’s with seafood. In Italy, meatballs are served with polenta.”
For the moment, Ferro plans to keep the same menu at Bergamo with the addition of weekly specials. Eventually, he hopes to highlight dishes from different regions of Italy. “Maybe one week I dedicate to Florence; the next week I dedicate to Rome; another to Sicily,” Ferro muses.
On The Menu:
Monkfish osso buco Served bone-in like the traditional meat dish that inspired it, thick pieces of monkfish (what the chef calls “poor-man’s lobster”) are sautéed with white wine, tomatoes, and capers, and finished in the oven.
Pork tenderloin with apples and sage Sautéed in white wine with diced green apples, the pork takes on earthy accents from fresh sage.
Arugula salad with Bosc pears and gorgonzola This refreshing salad contrasts the peppery bite of arugula against sweet pears and pungent cheese
Currently, he’s tossing around ideas for osso buco, rabbit with polenta, and carbonara di mare, handmade fettuccine topped with sea urchin and a raw quail egg. And you won’t go wrong ordering any of his variations of risotto, which he considers to be one of his signature dishes. Just don’t ask for a side of pasta.
Photography by Paul Mehaffey. Ristorante Bergamo, 100 N Main St, Greenville. (864) 271-8667, ristorantebergamo.com