Meet the Chef: Arturo Ottaviano, Chef and Owner of Osteria 177
Meet the man behind one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the region.
By Donna Whicher
At age 42, Arturo Ottaviano, chef and owner of Osteria 177 is a driven, passionate chef and entrepreneur who oversees a thriving restaurant on Main Street in an economic era when many other restaurants are struggling.
A transplant to Annapolis from Verona, Italy, every detail of Ottaviano’s establishment reflects his personality?from the coordinated wall art that reflects an oil painter?s keen eye to the warm service that embodies the spirit of ?osteria,? an Italian word that means host. I sat down at the bar with him recently to chat. He struck me as a generous person whose daily existence is centered around authentic Italian cuisine.
He told me about his background: He trained at the culinary school Bardolino on the Lake of Garda in Italy, and he disabused me of the stereotype that all Italian chefs learn how to cook in their childhood homes. He said his family played no role ?whatsoever? in his becoming a chef.
?It was just a choice,? he said.
If he had more time, he said he would pursue his interests in the arts and dine out and indulge in dishes that Osteria 177 does not serve. But for now, his restaurant is the center of his life.
Historic Annapolis Patch: What brought you to Maryland?
Arturo Ottaviano: I did an exchange program in DC that was between the culinary school and a fine dining restaurant that (back then) was Tiberius on K Street in Washington. And I liked it. I liked the ambience, the huge potential in the food industry in this country. Then I finished school and came back to Maryland.
Historic Annapolis Patch: Do any chefs influence you?
Ottaviano: The one I really like is George Giuco, a very well-known chef who?s also the owner of Twelve Apostles. He?s the kind of chef that even though he keeps basic, traditional Italian cuisine, he also gets into the future, into fusion.
Historic Annapolis Patch: On that note, how do you keep your menu updated?
Ottaviano: Nothing on my menu changes a lot. We use seasonal, organic products where we can. We try to use local produce. In the summer, we try to stay on the lighter side, and the specials change every day. The specials are what we update a lot.
Historic Annapolis Patch: Talk about what you do in addition to being a chef and owner.
Ottaviano: When you are the chef and the owner, you take care of administration, control food costs as a chef, you delegate, I mean you run the whole show.
Historic Annapolis Patch: Outside of food, what hobbies do you have?
Ottaviano: Well I used to have hobbies before I owned a restaurant. When you own a restaurant, it?s your whole thing, your wife, your everything. I paint, it?s part of my life. I used to do it more, but that was an interest, painting with oils. Music is also my passion, but I don?t play an instrument. [Another passion is] soccer, and I?m starting to understand American football.
Historic Annapolis Patch: What is the inspiration behind Osteria 177?
Ottaviano: Honestly, I try to bring myself out using authentic Italian cuisine, using the best product. The key to good fine dining at a competitive price. Otherwise you become just like everybody else. I could have done pizza and pasta, but what would I have accomplished? Nothing really. I put my personality, myself into it. And that?s reflected in the menu, the wine list, the service?I really control everything. It?s been five years now, and we?ve been really highly rated in Baltimore magazine, Open Table. We get good reviews all of the time, not 100 percent because you can?t make everyone happy all of the time. The original [concept of] Osteria was to do a wine bar. When you talk about osteria in Italy, you?re also talking about a wine bar. But five years ago we couldn?t get a license for that. Now you have a lot of wine bars that have opened, but it was different back then.
Historic Annapolis Patch: What does ?osteria? mean?
Ottaviano: It?s usually a traditional, family-owned restaurant in Italy, owned by a husband and wife. It?s a place where people, workers?blue collar and white collar?get together go to drink wine, eat, and play cards. Sometimes they have rooms [for overnight lodging]. The word ?osteria? means host.
Historic Annapolis Patch: A lot of people here in this area are used to pizza and pasta. So when you opened, did you have to train your clientele not to expect that or did they have open minds about authentic Italian cuisine?
Ottaviano: This is a very open-minded clientelle. A lot of the people understand and appreciate good food, and a lot of those people travel, go overseas for corporate business. Today they?re here, tomorrow they?re in New York or San Francisco. They get a chance to compare the quality of the food here with international restaurants.
Historic Annapolis Patch: What do you love most about your job?
Ottaviano: Outside of the fact that I love to cook, what I like the most is to see people leave satisfied. That they had the experience they expected, and it?s something I feel good about. It has nothing to do with money whatsoever.
Historic Annapolis Patch: Outside of Osteria 177, if you could eat anywhere in the world, where?s your favorite food?
Ottaviano: If I were to go out, I would go out for a good, classic wood-fired pizza, like Two Amys, near DC. They serve a fine Napolitano pizza. Otherwise I?d go for a good fusion, alternative food, a good steakhouse. I like Asian food.
Historic Annapolis Patch: What if a young person came up to you and said, ?I want to be a chef.? What would you say?
Ottaviano: The key to me is to get the basics from a culinary institute, if you can afford it. If you cannot afford a diploma from one of those institutions, you have to be humble enough to start from the base. Choose only to work in fine, good restaurants, even though you don?t make a lot of money?doesn?t matter. And do not stick with the same restaurant for two years because the best way to increase your knowledge is to work in different restaurants. Always change to a better chef, a better menu. These people don?t always hire everybody, but if you show enough passion?and don?t look at the money but at the long term?only apply in the restaurants with a good reputation, with special food, new techniques, and different menus. Going to different places can only enrich your personal experience.
Historic Annapolis Patch: What do you think about seafood in the Chesapeake area?
Ottaviano: I think we have a good selection of seafood even though my menu can?t always use local rockfish because that?s seasonal. My menu uses high-quality fish, not farm-raised of course, from all over the United States and sometimes from all over the world. We buy weekly fresh Dover sole (the whole fish) from Holland and halibut from Alaska, which I think is one of the greatest white fish. People don?t like fishy fish. We purchase monkfish, very unusual, and Atlantic salmon. Locally, when available, crabmeat. I don?t buy fish that is too simple or too cheap, so you never see tilapia on my menu. The quality of our tuna I only use sushi-grade ahi?if you make carpaccio you have to use really good tuna; otherwise, it will stink. Everything else is domestic, our shrimp, and my scallops are not frozen, small; they?re size 10 [10 per pound] very expensive. So, there is a lot of attention on the seafood to be quite honest. We constantly research. There?s a whole fish of which I feel very proud, branzino?a pound and a half, European style. We cook the whole fish; the waiter filets the fish on the side of the table. Sometimes we try the local sea bass, red snapper from Florida, center-cut swordfish. We have a huge variety of seafood on the menu. On the weekend, we?re busier and offer even more variety.
Meatwise, since day one, we?ve only dealt with Fell?s Point, an amazing company with mater choice beef. We use domestic lamb chop, which is amazingly expensive, flown in fresh not frozen from New Zealand. And we have veal, so as you can see we are not focusing on pasta or comfort food. With all due respect to comfort food, the selection of meat and seafood we do is more authentic.
The menu covers the entire territory of Italy. People ask, ?Are you northern? Are you Southern?? No. Seafood is available all over Italy, as you know if you know geography. That?s the beauty of our menu, it?s so diversified.
Historic Annapolis Patch: What else should people know about you or Osteria 177?
Ottaviano: You have to be surrounded by good people. It?s like a good soccer team, you know? You can have a good coach but if you don?t have good players, it?s disappointing. I find a way to get really good people around me. Knowledge you can come on board and learn to a point. But what I require is a passion for the business, the passion for food and wine is what gives you the knowledge. The knowledge is the power. You try every day to get new information about new wines and new food.
I?ve got an amazing bartender, Lucien. He does all the products, the syrups on his own. He?s particular. We don?t buy peach mix for the peach Bellini; he makes his own nectar.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the location of the restaurant and to change the following quote to read, “I like Asian food.”