Growing up, Nikki Cascone loved attending Little Italy’s annual San Gennaro festival, feasting on zeppoles hot out of the deep fryer. What she didn’t know back then was that in 2005 she’d open her own restaurant in Nolita, where she serves a more sophisticated variety of her old favorite: zeppoles with warm chocolate sauce and homemade vanilla bean ice cream.
“I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I have these on my menu all year long?’ ” the 35-year-old Brooklyn-born chef told GO Brooklyn. “I love having the license to do what I want.”
That license may soon be expanded. As a contestant on “Top Chef: Chicago,” the fourth season of Bravo’s culinary reality series, which premiered March 12, Cascone is vying for $100,000, a prize that would enable her to take her career as a restaurateur to the next level.
Currently, Cascone, who lives in Manhattan’s West Village, is in charge of the kitchen at 24 Prince, the bistro she co-owns with managing partners Brad Grossman (her boyfriend) and Chris Heller. She was able to carve some time out of her busy schedule last fall to compete on “Top Chef,” which takes the popular “Project Runway” formula to the kitchen, pitting 16 chefs against each other in weekly cooking competitions.
Starting your own restaurant and landing a spot on a major cable reality show is the result of years of hard work. But Cascone, a Sheepshead Bay native, also credits much of her success in the culinary world to her upbringing. (Indeed, she’s the only New York native on the show who’s actually working in the city.) Whether sampling $1.50 dumplings from a Chinatown dive or 50 cent rum rolls from Brighton Beach, Cascone’s always found inspiration in New York’s ethnic nooks and crannies, which has given her a broad palate of flavors to work with.
“New York is so diverse, you get all these unbelievable influences,” she said. “It’s like you’re traveling while you live here.”
Cascone had what she calls a “traditional Brooklyn upbringing,” although her family did move to Staten Island. Her Russian-Jewish mother and her Italian father grew up as neighbors, and she was born in the house her father and grandmother were raised in, which is still in the family. Her clan’s automotive businesses are fixtures on Banner Avenue, and most of her eight siblings and half-siblings still live in Sheepshead Bay.
Naturally, Cascone said, food was an integral part of growing up, and her family got together for a big meal every Sunday. As a kid, she would eat “everything,” even if it meant trying something new, a fitting childhood for someone who would later realize that food was a career calling.
“I recognized I was more passionate about [food] than my friends and most people, but at first, it was just the way I paid bills,” said Cascone.
At 14, she started working in neighborhood pork stores, and by 16, she was hopping the ferry to work in the kitchens at various restaurants.
At 21, she enrolled in the School of Culinary Arts in Atlanta, and stayed in that city for eight years, working under acclaimed chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Cliff Harrison at notable restaurants like V Steakhouse and Bacchanalia. She returned to New York in 2001, and Yankee Stadium drafted her for the 2005 season as the Director of Food and Beverage, which wasn’t all peanuts and crackerjacks: She was in charge of VIP menus including those for George Steinbrenner’s suite.
With all of the experience she’d accumulated in cooking and management over the years, when it came time to open her own restaurant, two and a half years ago, the process seemed like second nature.
When her wait staff started rallying for her to try out for “Top Chef,” which premiered in 2006, Cascone said she saw the chance as an opportunity to challenge herself and hone her skills, not just an opportunity to get on TV.
“If I wanted to go to Hollywood, I wouldn’t be in the restaurant business,” she said. “There’s no harder work to me. It’s about surviving in a competitive market. You have to learn how to be in your element, and how to make sure customers come back again and again. That’s the most challenging part.”
Cascone handles this challenge by making sure there’s something for everyone on her menu at 24 Prince, which is celebrating a belated second anniversary this month. She cooks up seasonal fusion dishes — her specialty is Mediterranean — and what Citysearch refers to as “tricked-out versions of comfort-food classics” like crispy mac and cheese rolls with BBQ sauce and honey-ginger glazed ribs.
“It’s the kind of place you can go every single day, if you want matzoh ball soup or [24 Prince’s extremely popular] meatloaf, we have those,” said Cascone. “If you want to go outside the box, we have that, too.”
As for the zeppoles, while they started as an experiment, they’ve taken on a life of their own.
“I have a feeling they’re going to be like the meatloaf,” said Cascone. “The clientele won’t let me take it off the menu!”