Making a Big Deal Out of Small Plates

“I hate entrées. I think it’s the worst idea,” said Steven Scalesse, the chef/co-owner of Tullulah’s in Bay Shore. Think about that—objecting to the established architecture of restaurant culture. Scalesse came up learning how to cook Italian, then picked up the importance of using seasonal produce, but the biggest influence on his menu is how Scalesse himself eats. “I like eating small portions and having a lot of different options. I don’t want to go to a restaurant and be like ‘Okay, I’m having just the swordfish tonight.’”

Scalesse’s bag of tricks includes sous vide, a method of putting all the ingredients in a bag and placing it in a water bath to cook to the desired temperature. Scalesse was one of Long Island’s earliest advocates of a dinner with 3 or 4 small plates when he opened the restaurant in 2005—he was just 23 years old. But as small as they might be, those plates are given plenty of thought. “I keep a journal next to my bed because there are a lot of things that come to me when I’m sleeping,” he said. “I keep a couple in the kitchen and I keep some near my desk.” Currently the last page in one of his journals holds the initial idea of what landed on the summer menu as a salad with red and yellow watermelon, grilled fennel and feta cheese over mâche and bibb lettuces topped with a watermelon vinaigrette.

At Tullulah’s, Scalesse satisfies a few axioms he developed along the way: He doesn’t want to cook Italian and he thinks guests should have a completely different experiences each time. Things might not have always seemed that way, considering he took responsibility for making the family sauce at age 16 and worked in the kitchens of local Italian restaurants after culinary school.

But working under Christopher Hunter, at the now closed In Season in Islip, Scalesse’s view of food changed. Not having tomatoes year round was not the end of the world. “Teaching me to cook within the season was a huge thing.” He took that approach and scaled it down when he opened Tullulah’s, named after the family’s mini dachshund. It was also around the time he moved away from Italian. “With the influence of Spanish food and Spain being the center of what’s happening in our culinary world right now, Italian food is not interesting to me anymore,” he said.

Dishes range from mac and cheese elevated with smoked gouda to a couscous with roasted vegetables topped with an egg poached in its shell to a fall favorite: local scallops. Then there is Scalesse’s Magic Taco Corp., the stand on the side of Sunrise Highway in Islip Terrace that he opened this summer. It’s his take on street food that, while more casual than Tullulah’s, doesn’t skimp on the parts list, including Berkshire pork belly, porchetta, jerked chicken taco toppings and steamed buns. “It’s like a Mexican Asian influence because when I travel I like to eat where the locals are eating—and anything traditional.”

For those willing to pass up one plate of Italian that typically covers all the bases—protein, starch and veg— Scalesse’s own eating habits might be seen as giving choice back to the diner. His goal isn’t to get you to eat more food, just more kinds of it.