Tony D's Chef Jay Speranza: Cooking Isn't Just a Job; It's an Adventure

When Tony D's chef/owner Jay Speranza was growing up in Rochester, New York, the family kitchen was an important part of his day-to-day life.

These days, Speranza is spending more time is professional kitchens, including that of the South Florida expansion of his Rochester-based Italian eatery, which launched an outpost in Fort Lauderdale last month. The 199-seat restaurant, open daily for dinner, specializes in classic Italian-American fare, with many homestyle recipes created by Speranza and executed by the establishment's head chef, Sean Kelley.

That includes an extensive menu of pastas, seafood, pizza, steaks, and pork chops, as well as a rotating list of daily specials. But the best part of the menu might be the restaurant's self-branded "$7 Until 7" happy hour, available Monday through Friday at the 17-seat chef's counter. There, seven menu items are sold for $7 from 5 to 7 p.m., in addition to half-price wine by the glass and $7 cocktails.

Happy-hour menu items include polpettine (three house-made baby meatballs served in marinara sauce with Pecorino-Romano and Parmesan cheeses); fettuntaalla Toscano (thick-sliced grilled country bread with white beans, arugula, and sliced porchetta); croquettaallamanzo (crisp croquettes made with short ribs, potatoes, mushrooms, and cheese); calamari fritti (fried calamari with cherry peppers, olives, garlic, and Pecorino); Italian chicken wings (served crisp from the pizza oven with caramelized onions and focaccia bread); a Margherita pizza; and Tony D’s Bar Burger.

New Times recently caught up with the self-taught chef.

New Times: What inspired you to become a chef?
Jay Speranza: Food was always central to life in our home growing up and continues to be a big part of my life today. I always associated good food and wine with the idea of family and friends, whether in times of celebration or sorrow.

What is the first important dish you remember making?
The first dish I remember being really proud of — and knowing that it was going to impress someone — was a grilled venison leg with fresh huckleberries, a red wine gastrique, braised mustard greens, and smoked ham hock.

What's your favorite meal to cook at home?
For myself, scrambled eggs with butter and olive oil and a bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano. For family, I keep it pretty old school with Sunday sauce, peppers and eggs, sautéed escarole, and chicken cutlets.

What's your favorite dish on the Tony D's menu right now?
Hard to say, as we put so much into making every dish stand out, including our nightly specials. But if I were to pick just one, it would be our Saturday-night feature, which is traditionally a veal osso buco (a Milanese speciality of veal shanks braised with vegetables, white wine, and broth). It's delicious and really gets to the heart of who we are. Each bite is suffused with a soul and warmth that I think defines Tony D's in regards to both our food and service.

Besides your restaurant, of course, where's your favorite establishment to eat and drink?
I usually keep things local, and there are some really great spots right in our area. Cigar Republic is one. Tiki Bar at Ocean Manor is another. And Blue Jeans Blues, Sushi Song, and Fishtales just to name a few.

Any favorite food trends?
It's been trending for some time, but I expect even more of a proliferation of chef takes on Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine as it continues to become more of a mainstream dining experience at more upscale venues than we have traditionally seen in the past.

What is your best advice for new chefs trying to make it in the biz?
Don't just do it for the paycheck. Make sure you are in it with all the heart, soul, passion, and commitment you can muster. To quote an old catchphrase from the army recruitment office: "It's not just a job. It's an adventure."

Tony D's is located at 3300 NE 32nd St., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-440-2151, or visit tonyds.net.

Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.

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