Newbury Alumnus Opened Italian Restaurant in Pennslyvania

Article originally published by Altoona Mirror here.
Photo from original article: "Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Passaniti’s owner/chef Michael Passanita works in the kitchen at the restaurant."

‘Country boy… with big-city tastes’: Passaniti’s Italian Ristorante in Dysart an unexpected surprise

Dysart, Pa. — Steve Peterman visits Passaniti’s Italian Ristorante three or four times a week for the food and service.

“It’s friendly, and the food is good, especially the ravioli. The pizza is fabulous. It’s all homemade,” said Peterman, who thinks nothing of the 15-minute drive from his Altoona home.

Tucked in a vintage building shared with the local post office, Passaniti’s is a pleasant surprise in this village of fewer than 1,000 on Route 53.

An Altoona native, Chef Michael Passanita grew up here but was heavily influenced by his strong Italian family and stories of how his grandfather migrated from Sicily. On one of his trips to the family’s home of Malvagna on the Mediterranean island, Passanita discovered that the family name had somehow been changed, thus explaining the discrepancy in the spellings of his name and the restaurant’s name.

Passanita, who will be 51 on Friday, graduated from Cambria Heights High School in 1984 and headed to culinary school at Newbury College in Brookline, Mass. He did an externship at a New England vineyard and worked at a bed-and-breakfast to get a feel for that region’s food.

For years, he worked for himself and others in the catering and restaurant business in the region, including St. Francis University’s dining programs, where he was the executive sous chef.

Last year, Passanita realized his dream after buying the 1940s building that always had been a bar or tavern and had most recently sat idle for a half-dozen years with the Coal Car Saloon sign out front. He cleaned it up and opened in the spring.

“I couldn’t have afforded to do this in a big city, but I’ve always been a country boy at heart with big-city tastes,” he said.

The decor is a little unexpected. You walk through the front door and through the smoke-free full bar to a wide-open dining room full of tables covered with black-linen clothes and striking centerpieces of willow branches.

“It’s not super fancy,” he said. “I don’t want it to be stuffy by any means. Wear shorts, if you want to. We’re kid-friendly,” with a children’s menu, he said.

A G-scale train runs in a figure-8 path on a track just below the ceiling providing a bit of nostalgia for this traditional railroad country.

The uncomplicated menu carries a limited fare of salads, soups, appetizers, entrees, pizza, wings, sandwiches and desserts every day.

Regular entrees range from a 12-ounce ribeye for $19.95 to chicken parmesan for $12.50 to spaghetti for $8.50 — add $1 for each meatball and on Wednesdays, it’s all-you-can-eat. Other options include hand-tossed pizzas, wings and hamburgers.

The homemade ravioli, hand-rolled and filled with cheese on-site, probably is the most popular, and you can get that just about any day. Passanita’s mother, Peg, comes by with a friend every Tuesday to help make it, he said.

Or you can opt for the rotating specials that change weekly for dinner, pizza, salad, sandwich and soup.

Last week, the dinner special was stuffed pork chops.

“Pork is real popular around here,” Passanita said. “This is meat and potato country, and I try to do what the people want.”

An occasional special is fruitti di mare, a popular multi-seafood dish that literally means “fruit of the sea.” Passaniti’s includes mussels, claims, calamari and shrimp, with tomatoes, garlic, onion, “all that good stuff” on a pasta base, Passanita said.

Other specials have been prime rib, lasagna, crab cakes, homemade gnocchi, beef tenderloin tips and ahi tuna.

While you can get a hand-tossed pizza any day, the weekly pizza specials have ranged from taco to spinach and artichoke.

“I sell a lot of pizzas, especially to go,” Passanita said. “I need a bigger oven.”

The specialty sandwich has ranged from a mushroom Swiss burger to pulled beef to a meatball sandwich.

Specialty salads have included cucumber and carrot and a Sicilian variety that comes with fresh sliced oranges, mozzarella, fresh basil, red onions and olive oil. All the salad dressings are made from scratch.

So are the soups, that rotate from kielbasa and bean to chicken tortellini or beef vegetable. You can get Italian wedding soup any day. Even the chicken or beef stocks used to make the soups are homemade, and Passanita uses fresh herbs. He grows a lot of his own during the growing season and buys local when he can, he said.

Passanita spends most Tuesdays at the restaurant, even though it’s closed, because he hosts cooking classes, that range from Mediterranean cooking to how to make a pizza.

The restaurant is on 4 1/2 acres, and Passanita envisions a garden out back one day, just beyond a deck he hopes to add across the back. He may convert the basement to a party room, perhaps with a pool table. Live music already is a regular feature on weekends.

Lauri McAndrew said she drives up from Altoona regularly for the food, the atmosphere and, well, the drive.

“It is beautiful,” either up Wopsy Road or Black Snake Road, she said. If the weather is bad, take Route 36 to Route 53 through Ashville. “I like to get out anyway. This is the second time this week we’ve been here. Everybody is very friendly. We’re business owners, so we like going to local businesses, not a franchise.”

“The pasta e fagioli is the most delicious,” McAndrew said. “He uses his grandma’s family recipes. Everything is good.”

- Article written by Mirror Life Writer Cherie Hicks, originally published here.

Behind the Plates
Passaniti’s Italian Ristorante
1192 Clearfield Valley Blvd., Dysart
(814) 946-0100
Hours: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday (bar with limited menu open until midnight on Friday and Saturday)
Atmosphere: Fine dining in a casual atmosphere
Specials: Rotating dinner specials, from stuffed pork chops to homemade lasagna, starting at $12; pizza special, $14; sandwich of the week, $10.


About Newbury: Newbury College is a private, independent college located just minutes from Boston in the Fisher Hill neighborhood of Brookline, Massachusetts. Founded in 1962, Newbury College offers bachelor and associate degree programs in over 20 career-focused majors. Committed to personalized and experience-based teaching, Newbury inspires students to become independent thinkers, valuable collaborators, and global-minded citizens.

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Michael Passanita '89 opened Passaniti’s Italian Ristorante in his hometown of Dysart, Pa.