Keeping Italian Cuisine--and Cinema--Alive

Culinary Personalities

Sam, tell us about your past. Have you always worked in the hospitality industry?

SJ: I began in the hospitality industry in NYC in 1980 with Holiday Inns. Seven years ago, I left New York City and crossed the Hudson River to this brand new state called New Jersey. For a New Yorker, that’s a big move. I was very familiar with the Soho Grand and Tribeca Grand Hotels and sent my résumé to them when I read they were in need of restaurant managers for a property in New Jersey. I was hired and the rest is history.

How long have you worked at Masina Trattoria?

SJ: I actually began at a concept called Harbor Bar seven years ago—in the space where Masina Trattoria is now. The concept was trendy and drew a unique crowd, but it the owners thought New Jersey needed something else. So, three years ago, Masina was introduced. It has been wonderful to be part of two totally different concepts and see their development.

How would you describe Masina to someone who's never been there?

SJ: Masina Trattoria is a restaurant with large glass windows overlooking the Hudson River with a dead-on view of the Empire State Building. Guests can find an intimate space in the corner or be part of the expansive bar with its grey-tiled floors and dark wood accents. Masina is like a chameleon; it can be many things to those who walk through its doors. The walls are filled with wonderful black and white prints of Italy—from the images of various regions to the portraits of Dean Martin, Rocky Graziano, Frederico Fellini, and his actress wife, Guilitta Masina, after whom the restaurant is named.

Does Guilitta frame the concept, then?

SJ: You could say that. There are two fabulous framed pictures of this cinematic husband-and-wife team at the entrance to the restaurant. There are also television screens that play classic Italian films throughout the day. Many of them feature Ms. Masina, as well as Sophia Loren and the works of Director Fellini. I tell you, there's nothing better than an antipasto, a glass of wine, and watching the Italian movies La Strada, La Dolce Vita, and Marriage Italian Style. I could go on and on. We also show European soccer matches on TV and, as Italian as Masina is, we can't leave out a Yankee game at the bar.

Chef Ruso, in your opinion, which Italian menu items or ingredients at Masina are out of the ordinary, or extra-special?

RR: Masina Trattoria is all about serving great food at moderate prices in a comfortable setting on the Hudson River. You have views of the greatest city in the world here—magical enough for a birthday, an anniversary, or just a casual meal that becomes a memorable experience. The freshest ingredients we can find make the simplest entrée explode with flavor. Our Classic Spaghetti alla Carbonara, for example, is prepared with ripe peeled tomatoes, served piping hot with imported Parmesan. These are the kinds of dishes that bring the Italian countryside to your table. Let us know what your favorite dish is, and who knows what could happen.

What's the wine list like? Any specialty cocktails?

RR: There's a new wine list at Masina, and it complements the various appetizers and entrées. The waitstaff will make recommendations regarding what wines are favorites of our many returning guests. For those who cannot make a decision, the menu lists a number of wines that taste particularly well with a certain sauce. As for beverages, Cosmopolitans have taken over the world. But there are competitor's for the spotlight; Masina's Figenza Martini, made with fig vodka, Stoli Vanil, and amaretto is in a dead heat with the Espresso Martini, made with Ketel One Vodka, crème de cacao, and vanilla. Both are made to perfection by our bartenders.

Sam, back to you. At the end of the day, what do you see as the most rewarding part of your job?

SJ: Seeing a guest leave happy—whether it’s a local guest we know and love, or a guest of the hotel. Over the years, we've forged friendships with guests from far and wide. They occasionally drop us a line during the holidays or come in to say a friendly hello. They're often thinking of us.

Anything exciting rolling out at Masina this fall?

SJ: Owner Tony Fant and his design team have some very unique ideas coming together to make Masina a truly memorable visit. From vintage Italian music and authentic Italian dishes, to Italian cinema and a bar and wine menu to suit everyone's taste, they definitely have a vision in mind.