BAR HARBOR — Frank Pendola cooks with his soul.
He has no fancy training or culinary school behind his enterprises, which include the supper club Nostrano tucked into the basement of his Town Hill home and Frankie’s BBQ at the Hollywood Casino Raceway in Bangor.
But, Pendola grew up in one of the best environments for cooks: an Italian neighborhood.
The Niagara Falls, N.Y., native learned at the waist of not just his grandmother but all the nonnis in the neighborhood along with aunts and uncles, et al.
“They pretty much brought the old country with them,” said Pendola.
“I didn’t realize I grew up in Italy until I left,” he quipped.
“They love what they do in the kitchen so much they want to share it with the people who come to their homes,” he said, describing his neighborhood.
Pendola moved to Maine in 1992 to work at The Jackson Laboratory. He had been a molecular biologist. His wife of 20 years, Janice, still works there.
“I’m paying homage to the people who unwittingly gave me a whole second career,” Pendola said. “It’s how they made me feel about it. They helped to make me passionate about it.”
He catered his first dinner in May of 2004 for a friend’s wake. He thought about going into the business but then decided to do “reverse catering. You come here and eat it.”
Pendola is passionate about ingredients, especially growing and making his own food. That includes tomatoes, which you may have a surplus of right now.
Pendola and his wife grow about a field full of tomato plants at their house, which is tucked into a forested lot on a cul-de-sac off the Crooked Road.
Of course, they grow garlic, peppers, eggplant, herbs and greens too.
Their supper club, “Nostrano,” translates as “local” but comes from the word “nostro,” meaning “ours.”
“When an Italian says Nostrano, they mean from their part of Italy,” Pendola says on his website.
Pendola sources seeds from Johnny’s as well as a business called Seeds from Italy. He makes his own seed blocks and keeps a detailed journal of what he’s plants and where.
The cook grows many varieties of tomatoes but green zebra is a particular favorite.
On a recent August day, Pendola deep-fried thick slices of green tomatoes in a mixture of flour and beer. He served the crispy rounds with a remoulade sauce.
Pendola being Pendola also fries red tomatoes.
“You can do anything you want, that’s the beauty of it,” he said.
One could make a meal just from the fried green tomatoes.
But Pendola slices more green zebra tomatoes as well as large red and yellow Brandywines for a Caprese salad. He tucks basil leaves he grew himself and slices of buffalo mozzarella between the tomato slices with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to finish.
More tomatoes go into a sauce, which Pendola insists we don’t need a recipe for as long as we’re paying attention to the ingredients we’re using.
“It’s just a few basic things and you make it your own,” he said. “It’s not that complicated but it’s time.”
“Each ingredient by itself doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “But if you pay attention to each ingredient and only use the very best, the end result is going to be amazing. My grandmother taught me that a long time ago. You pay attention so every ingredient is the best.”
Balance in a dish is crucial too.
“You’ve got to achieve balance,” he said. “It’s one of the most difficult things to do as a chef.”
Pendola said a lot of the dishes he grew up with were rooted in “poverty.” “They made eggplant meatballs to trick themselves into thinking they were eating meat,” he said.
Tomato, bread and garlic soup is born out of leftovers. “You had some tomatoes and you had some old bread so you made soup,” he said.
One of the best things to do with tomatoes, besides making a tomato sandwich on good Italian bread, is to preserve some of the harvest for the long Maine winter ahead.
Frank and Janice preserve their crop several ways. They dry slices of tomatoes in a dehydrator for overnight sun-dried tomatoes. More tomatoes will be canned. “For the first time, I used a pressure cooker to can tomatoes this year,” he said.
If you don’t want to fuss with canning, you can freeze tomatoes.
“We freeze a lot of them too,” Pendola said. Blanch the tomatoes in hot water to get the skins off, then stuff them into containers and freeze.
Pendola and Janice honeymooned in Napa Valley. Pendola recalls going to an Italian restaurant there. He was befuddled not to see anyone of Italian descent cooking.
The owner explained to Pendola, what he knows well now. “If you put Italians in an Italian kitchen, they’re going to do it the way they want to do it, not the way you want it done.”
To learn more, visit nostrano.com.