Story by Jonathan Ammons
Photos by Tim Robinson
There are a lot of cliches revolving around Italians and family and, in certain cases, you can understand why those stereotypes stick. So much so, that when you really find yourself engulfed in an Italian community, it often becomes hard to distinguish who is related by blood and who is just considered an uncle. In a lot of ways, Strada owner and chef Anthony Cerrato fits that cliché to a tee, but in others, he has seen that typecast painfully challenged in his own life. Any story from Anthony starts with a Goodfella’s-like explanation of the handful of characters involved, and who was related to whom, whose last name was just a letter or two off from the others, who was called uncle that wasn’t actually an uncle.
But just six months ago, he promoted his son Gabe to head of the kitchen at his restaurant, leading to their busiest months in the business’s history. There are almost a dozen employees at his restaurant that have worked for the family for nearly their entire careers, some of whom have been with the company nearly 20 years. And through breakups, disagreements and victories, closings and openings, and even recessions, they’ve all kept coming back to each other, the way a family does.
Born in Newark, raised in the small town of Nutley, New Jersey, Anthony moved down to Asheville at the age of 18 to help his father Fred, a developer who built Glen Arden Heights, as well as homes in Oakley. He always wanted to get into the restaurant business for some reason, says Anthony. In 1988, Fred opened Boscoe’s in South Asheville followed by the downtown Cottonwood Cafe in 1995, and pushed Anthony to enroll in culinary school at AB Tech. I wanted to be an architect, but my father wanted me to help with the restaurant, says Anthony. He talked me out of it to go to culinary school instead. “Just try it,” he said. “I started off as a dishwasher, and I washed dishes for two years!” he says.
Not six months, not two months, two years, before I got to do anything else. Dishwasher, prep, garmangier, then I started doing the cold/hot line, and then got into saute and then chef. But it took years.
Through the connections of his father’s best friend, Harvey Nadel, Anthony was connected with the Shastri family, who ran the Windmill Restaurant and later Cafe Bombay, the Latin Quarter, and the Flying Frog Cafe and landed Anthony an internship for culinary school with the Windmill, where he worked while continuing to help with Bosco’s and Cottonwood.
After meeting and marrying his first wife, Pam, at AB Tech, and discovering they were expecting, he asked his father for a raise. Fred said he couldn’t swing it, and Anthony found his new family packing their bags to move to the triangle, where he took a job working at Italian eatery Bachagaloops for a year and a half.
They were definitely characters, he laughs, noting that after enough internal struggles, the joint ended up going south. But the place was so busy! I would go in at nine in the morning, and there was already a line around the building to get in!
With his wife out of work taking care of the baby, he found himself working nearly 100 hours a week, and with a few more connections through family and friends, he wound up seeking better hours at Vinnie’s Steakhouse and Tony’s Oyster Bar. But after cooking one too many Steak Oscars, Anthony started worrying if it was time to get out of the business entirely. He left the restaurant world, taking a job at Whole Foods and working his way up the leadership ranks, helping to develop their catering business and opening new branches, until that too wore thin.
I just got so used and abused by everybody, he says. They’d tell you you’re only going to be working 60-80 hours a week, and the next thing you know you’re working 100, and you can’t even pay your bills because you can’t do anything else, you can’t even get to the bank!
He went on to enroll in the police academy and was looking at property management jobs, hoping to abandon the kitchen altogether, when his father called him back to Asheville, desperate for help with the Cottonwood Cafe.
One day I went out there, and there was a sea of grey hair in the dining room, and I said to my dad, “Do you see an issue here? … everybody is over 65! Our clientele is limited, we’d have to get with the times!” He drew a new logo, a bull representing his father, and a flower, for the literal translation of his grandfather’s name, which would be the new name of the restaurant, Fiore’s. Serving higher end Italian food, he made everything from scratch, including their ravioli and past as.
Monetarily, it was a bust, he says, but reputation wise, it was a big success, because that’s how I became known in town, was through Fiore’s and Fred’s Speakeasy.
But soon, he started looking for ways to do something on his own and hand the restaurant back to his father. But when Anthony began planning his own venture in 2012, his father was furious to discover that most of the staff saw their loyalties with Anthony, and not at Fiore’s. In a very public, ugly feud, Fred closed Fiore’s abruptly, without notifying the staff, papering over the windows, removing the sign, and changing the locks, ending the restaurants 22 year legacy practically overnight.
Ironically he closed the doors on February 27th. I was going to tell him on the 28th that I wasn’t going to go through with it, I wasn’t going to sign the papers, that I felt too loyal to the family. But he didn’t give me a chance, so it felt like the universe was telling me to move on and do my own thing. Within 30 days of Fiore’s closing, Strada was open.
I had no concept, I had no name, but I had a staff that was super loyal and eager to work. They cleaned tables and moved stuff around, and I just kept paying them until we could open.
Shortly after Strada was up and running, he began revamping Sazarac to turn it into the Social Lounge. Fred Cerrato passed in 2015, and his wake was held before a packed congregation at the Basilica of St. Lawrence.
When it came down to it, recalls Anthony, we really did enjoy each other’s company, we just didn’t enjoy working with each other. We spent a lot of time with each other and had a lot of conversations; it’s all water under the bridge. This whole thing with my father was a blessing in disguise, because now my son and I work together, it’s like pressing the rewind button on my life. I moved from New Jersey to work at my dad’s Italian restaurant when I was 18 going on 19, and Gabe moved from Raleigh to work at my restaurant when he was 18 going on 19.
Anthony’s been able to apply those lessons from his father, examples of both what to do, and what not to do in a family business. I find it important to point out the elephant in the room here: the all too familiar conflict and connection between a father and a son, a trade and a passion, a job and a lifestyle. What keeps us coming back?
What are these ties that tether us to our families and to our careers? I’ve come to an understanding that for people like Anthony Cerrato, it is a deep consciousness that all of that struggle, tension, and pain can bring you a better understanding of and connection to both the people you love and the thing you do for a living; that cultivating both work and family are hard, and take their toll on a person, but that the ways it shapes you, both as a professional and as a friend, are totally worth all of those scars.
I learned a whole lot of what not to do from my dad, says Anthony, and I think that is really important. Life doesn’t teach you how to live, you just live it. So there’s no mistakes, there’s just lessons. Some lessons are more costly than others, some hurt more than others, but we get through it.
Strada is located at 27 Broadway. Visit them online at stradaasheville.com.