Talking about Manny's Bistro with chef and owner Manny Sarnelli
1. Tell us about Manny's Bistro.
It's an old world Italian restaurant. It's a cozy, family-friendly, neighborhood international bistro. It's owned by my wife and myself and is a family effort.
2. What do you mean by an old world Italian restaurant?
Old world is classic Italian recipes handed down from generation to generation within my family. The recipes aren't nouvelle cuisine - they're traditional dishes that most people would recognize from the 50's, 60's and 70's.
3. When did Manny's open?
It opened November 20, 2012.
4. How do you differentiate Manny's from other Italian restaurants?
I consider myself like a dinosaur. We make everything from scratch. There's a price to pay for this. I could cut corners in a lot of different areas to lessen the work for me, but my family is insistent on keeping the old family tradition of making everything from scratch and to order. It's very labor intensive and takes more time to prepare. And because we're making everything by hand, sometimes the food will look home made. And it is! It's real food. The taste makes up for the appearance and the extra time it takes.
We also don't use processed foods, additives, preservatives, or flavor enhancers. We use a lot of organic food. Sometimes I think people are so used to eating artificial food that they forget what real food is like. People who are used to eating real food come here because they know they're going to get real food.
5. Is everything from scratch? Even your pasta?
Just about everything is from scratch, including most of our pasta. The pasta we don't make from scratch is imported from Italy. The mozzarella is made from scratch. For our chicken parmesan we pound the chicken ourselves, we slice it and we bread it.
6. You make your own cheese?
Yes, we make our own mozzarella.
7. It sounds like Manny's is a family affair. Can you tell us about that?
My mom works as our hostess, greeting people, singing and making the cappuccinos. Nobody makes a cappuccino like my mom! Sometimes Mom will help out serving. She's an all around ace in the hole. My dad is the master mozzarella chef; he makes our cheese. He also makes a secret little limoncello liqueur that we serve at the end of a meal to our customers. It's an infusion of vodka, grain alcohol, fresh fruit, and fruit rinds like lemons, oranges, and tangerines. My wife is the pastry chef and makes all the desserts. She also helps serving on the weekends. Then there's me. I'm the chef, manager, marketing director, accountant and pretty well everything else. My sister is a server and also helps with the hosting. We have a dear family friend from Italy, Franco, who is a server as well.
8. Did you wife go to culinary school?
She's been working at bars and pasticcerias, which are pastry shops. In Italy the bars aren't like here. In Italy you can go in and have a drink but you can also have a pastry, or buy a cake or bread. She's been doing that since she was 14 years old. Same with me. I don't have too much culinary school background. My college degrees are in biology, pre-med and psychology. I did a few years of culinary school and restaurant management, but I really went to school to be a doctor. I eventually returned to my first love, which is cooking. I've been cooking professionally since I was 11 years old, believe it or not. I started in my uncle's restaurant, Giovanni's, in Jacksonville Beach and I've been cooking ever since.
9. What convinced you to switch from pre-med to being a chef?
I love seeing people happy. I love to see the expression on their face when they eat something and it takes them back to their childhood or it just gives them a warm, happy feeling. I had a man come in the other day and tell me my whipped potatoes were the best he's ever had. He told me he could come in and just make a meal out of my whipped potatoes. There are rewards in medicine, but for the majority of the time people are miserable, they're hurting, or they're dying. It's just not for me. I like seeing people happy and enjoying themselves. That's why I came back to cooking.
10. What have been the influences on your cooking?
I would have to give credit to my maternal grandmother. She was a tremendous chef. When my family went on vacation, my grandma would stay behind because she didn't want to tag along. I'd stay home with Grandma and learn dishes. I loved to eat and was a chubby little kid until I got to high school. I loved eating and I loved cooking. My mom tells me that when I was 4 years old she woke up smelling garlic one morning and here I was coming through the door serving them spaghetti with garlic, oil and anchovies. That's what I made for breakfast at 4 years old.
11. Has your focus always been on cooking Italian food?
Yes, it's my primary love. I'm very passionate about food in general. I like some French food. I like Asian fusion cuisine. I also like Americana - taking traditional American recipes and tweaking them a little bit. I really enjoy seafood as an ingredient. Pastas too, of course. And I like to cook meats. Being in Orange Park it's hard to stretch the menu too much though.
12. Do you serve Asian fusion or Americana in Manny's Bistro?
Yes. Sometimes I like to throw in Tex Mex and some Spanish dishes as well. I make a really, really good paella.
13. What attracted you to your location in Orange Park?
This is where Sarnelli's was. I like the community - it's a small town, kind of like where I grew up in Naples. It's a suburb. It's quiet, and a great place to raise a family. Everyone knows each other. That's primarily why, I guess. I stuck where people knew me.
14. Where do you get your recipes?
Most of the recipes have come through my family for generations. They come from my grandmother and from my uncles and aunts on both sides of our family. Some of them I pick up along the way. I used to travel a lot, although not so much anymore. Some of them I do research on.
15. Do you have a signature dish, or something that represents you and your cooking style?
Hmmm. I definitely like to make seafood cioppino. It's a stew, made with a variety of seafood in a light, slightly spicy tomato sauce. It's served on a bed of linguini with garlic crostini. It's very good.
16. If someone was coming to Manny's for the first time, what would you recommend to help them get an understanding of what Manny's is all about?
I would definitely urge them to try the fresh mozzarella. But everything is good! They should try the seafood dishes, if they like seafood. If not, anything else they try will be good. The menu is pretty extensive. We have things ranging from sandwiches to pasta to appetizers. We make a really good brick oven pizza too. And things are moderately priced. I like to think we're like a 5-star restaurant with 2-star prices.
17. Can you recommend something a little different?
This weekend I made a dish we call Manny's Ultimate Beef Wellington. It's a filet mignon, wrapped in prosciutto, with a mushroom and truffle duxelle. Then it's wrapped in puff pastry, baked, sliced to order and served on a peppercorn, mustard, cream sauce. It's accompanied with roasted baby potatoes and wilted spinach in a butter sauce. People just went crazy over it. That's not something people expect in an Italian restaurant, but I tell you, I have people calling to ask when I'm making my Beef Wellington. They're amazed how good it is.
…is that on the regular menu?
No. I cycle it from time to time, especially during the colder time of the year. It's a hearty, robust meal that people enjoy when it's colder. I like to think of Manny's as a seasonal bistro. We're going to implement a seasonal menu. I'll keep some of the old favorites, but vary things at least 4 times a year. We'll use fresh, seasonal ingredients that allow us to introduce people to real Italian food. It's not always what most people think.
…what do you mean by that?
Many popular cuisines have become Americanized and stereotyped. For example, most people think Italians mostly eat pasta, pizza and lasagna all the time. But there are many different cuisines in Italy, based on the region. My wife is from Sicily and I'm from Naples. We're both from the south of Italy and our cuisine is very strong in seafood and vegetables. We always integrate pasta with a wide variety of vegetables and protein. We eat a lot of fish and poultry - meat not so much. Beef is more of a northern Italian item, but I like to cook beef too. Real Italian cooking involves simple ingredients, variety, a lot of vegetables and not a big emphasis on sauces. Most people think that doesn't sound Italian but most of the times it is.
18. What's your favorite dish?
I'm happy with our grilled seafood platter and a side of broiled vegetables with some olive oil, and maybe some lemon. That's what I really enjoy.
19. Where do you like to eat when you're not at Manny's?
I enjoyed a good meal at Restaurant Medure when it first opened and I've heard a lot about Orsay, which I will try as soon as possible. Overall I tend to gravitate towards good steakhouses like Morton's. I love to try new restaurants but have been disappointed in the past, so most times I tend to stick to great steakhouses like Morton's. It's not often we eat out anyway - we love to cook and eat with the family!
20. What did you do before Manny's?
We've been in this area since 1983. We've had a few different restaurants.
21. Can you tell us about some of the restaurants you had before Manny's Bistro?
We had Blu Grotto, Sarnelli's and Manny's Cafe.
22. How does the style of cooking at Manny's Bistro relate to your earlier restaurants? Did you bring over any of the recipes?
Yes I have. I've brought some of the strongest dishes from Sarnelli's and Blu Grotto. Manny's Cafe was known for our pizza and we've brought that over as well. We've integrated the strongest dishes from each of our restaurants. If you were to compare everything I'd say Manny's Bistro most resembles Blu Grotto because at Blu Grotto I'd brought over the best dishes from the earlier restaurants. We've continued that with Manny's Bistro, and we've been adding new things through our weekend specials. I'm going to take it a step further now with our seasonal menus that will rotate based on food availability and season.
23. Do you do all the cooking at Manny's?
It's me and my sous chef, Matt Smith. We put out a lot of food between the two of us. When it gets busy on the weekend we're really moving.
24. I understand that you've added a drive thru to Manny's.
Yes. I'm trying to do something I haven't seen anywhere else - Italian drive thru. We have a drive thru menu so you can get good Italian food in the convenience of your car.
25. Is the menu different? Is the food meant to be eaten in your car, or is it to pick up and take home?
The menu is designed for people to eat in their car, or wherever they want to go. The food is the same as they get in here, but just served a whole lot quicker. Not as fast as McDonald's maybe, but pretty fast.
26. What sorts of things are on the menu?
We have all our sandwiches, pizza, salads, chicken fingers, desserts, and lots more.
27. How do you do a pizza in a drive through? Doesn't it take 10-15 minutes to cook?
No! We've got it down to about 5-7 minutes, or under. Everything is made to order, so it's special that way. And we've focused on serving it quickly.
28. Do you cater?
Yes. We did a few wedding receptions last year and have a few more coming up. We can deliver the food or we'll set it up, serve it and do everything for you.
29. Anything else?
We're an independent family restaurant. I want people to know that they can come here and get real food, made from scratch, from local business people for a super reasonable price, from Monday through Saturday. I hope people will come out and give us a try.