Tonawanda News

September 29, 2013

Falls restaurant menu benefits from produce grown just outside the kitchen

By Michele DeLuca
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Long before the trend of cooking with locally grown foods, a Niagara Falls restaurant staff was creating dishes with produce from a huge garden located only steps from the kitchen.

This time of year, John Ognibene, owner of the Casa Nova Italian American Restaurant on Military Road, starts every day in the restaurant garden, pulling fresh eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, parsley and much more from the earth. Much of it ends up in the dishes he'll prepare that evening, as fresh as he can make them.

It's a time-honored tradition which began when the Casa Nova was founded in 1975 by John's dad, Ignazio, after closing a flower shop he ran for 14 years on Pine Avenue, called Everybody's Florist.

Shortly after the restaurant opened, Ignazio, known as "Nash," created a large garden outside the restaurant, which on a recent September afternoon was still abundantly producing enough vegetables and herbs for the restaurant, with extra to spare. As John stood beside the garden he pointed to five 40-foot rows of swiss chard, large beautiful, green leaves nearly ready to be picked, surely to find their way into an upcoming restaurant dish.

When asked if it there was a cost savings to growing his own produce, John laughed. 

"Save? If you count my time, I'm saving nothing, except maybe mileage on my car when I drive to local produce markets," he said. "It's just so convenient to come out here and have what you need at your fingertips."

His father, Nash, who was 23 when he came to the United States from Italy, is 83 years old now, and can't garden much anymore. But almost every time he comes to the restaurant he orders the eggplant parmesan, a restaurant specialty, sometimes having it six days in a row.

"It has a lot of iron in it," Nash said with an Italian accent, adding that the eggplant also helps him keep his insulin levels normal. "It don't make the sugar go so high," he smiled. "You gotta try it."

To show the difference between fresh and not, John stood in his kitchen and reached for a jar of fresh-chopped oregano and then asked a visitor to compare the smell with another container of store-bought dried oregano. The dried versions offered a familiar scent, but the fresh chopped was a far more vibrant smell, which only vaguely resembled the dry but which boasted a savory, earthy aroma nearly impossible to compare.

He said he pulled about three bushels of garlic from his garden this season, and said that there was a distinct difference between fresh-grown garlic and store-bought. 

"There is no comparison. My garlic is very pungent in its flavor."

John's current gardening secret is to grow his plants in diatomaceous earth, which is a soft, sifted dirt containing the remains of fossils.

Beyond the garden, John credits his father for good advice on how to survive and thrive in today's world.

"He said to me, when I was younger ... when you own the soil beneath your feet, no one can move you," John recalled.

And though his three sisters, Cathy, Nancy and Maria, found other careers, some of the grandchildren spent time as servers in the restaurant, including John and wife Lisa's daughters, Gianna and Francesca. The presence of the two girls and their cousin Danielle, delighted their grandfather, John said. 

"I never saw him look so happy as when he saw all three girls working in the restaurant," he said.

And John, of course, who has devoted his life to running the business his parents began, has always been grateful for his dad's wisdom. 

"I'm glad I listened to him," he said. "I really love what I do and I thank my parents for giving me the opportunity."

IF YOU GO • WHAT: Casa Nova Restaurant • WHERE: 3041 Military Road, Niagara Falls • WHEN: Open Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. • MORE INFORMATION: Visit Casa Nova on Facebook or call 297-9544.