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By Ryan Johnson, Published August 06 2013

Monte’s executive chef puts his own stamp on fine dining

FARGO – Christian D’Agostino almost stayed in his native Rhode Island, where he cut his teeth as a teenager in an Italian restaurant he was poised to take over one day just down the road from his childhood home in Wake-field.

But he instead chose to try something new, a deci-sion that led to D’Agostino and business partner Dan Hurder taking ownership in October of Monte’s Downtown, where he serves as executive chef.

After finishing high school, he attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and returned home to be head chef of the Italian restaurant.

“It was a hard decision, but I left,” he said. “It was either that, stay there for the rest of my life, or go on and learn more things. I’m glad that I left.”

The 40-year-old Moor-head resident left Rhode Island to join his brother in Alabama, where he worked at a city club – a “country club without the golf course” in Birmingham – and focused on Southern cooking.

He already had a back-ground in Italian and French, interning at a French restaurant in Ari-zona while in culinary school, and then applied to a luxury and adventure cruise line that taught him the cuisines of the world.

“You’re forced to learn all the cuisines of all the areas, so it was invaluable to what I wanted to accom-plish by leaving back when I was a young guy in Rhode Island,” he said.

D’Agostino worked as executive chef on four ships, establishing a repu-tation in the kitchen that would come in handy when he met Tony Nasello, who was serving as the cruise line’s hotel director.

D’Agostino met his fu-ture wife, Glenda, who was a server on the ships, and after three years with the cruise line they were ready to find a more stable life-style.

He said the timing was perfect, as Nasello was also ready for a change and had moved back to his wife’s hometown of Fargo. D’Agostino agreed to move to the community for what he thought would be one or two years to help Nasello start up the new Sarello’s restaurant in Moorhead.

He left a year later, try-ing his hand in Maryland with his wife and first child. But that didn’t work out, and he returned to Sarello’s.

Nasello said he knew ear-ly on that the “hard-working, very ambitious” D’Agostino wanted to eventually operate his own restaurant, so he saw it as a “natural progression” when the chef moved over to the new Hilton Garden Inn in 2009 after nine years at Sarello’s and started to plan the next phase of his career.

D’Agostino said he once again thought he had found a possible long-term career at the hotel, where he enjoyed the good pay and more responsibilities.

But when the ownership changed, he decided he needed to find his own way again.

Another change

The timing was again right for D’Agostino to try something new – Hurder, the hotel’s former general manager, left after the ownership change and wanted to branch out in the restaurant industry.

They discussed their op-tions while D’Agostino stayed busy last summer at the Otter Supper Club in Ottertail, Minn., which Hurder had bought.

They lined up investors for their target – the nearly decade-old Monte’s Downtown, which had become Sarello’s competitor in the fine dining market of Fargo-Moorhead – and took over the operation Oct. 1.

D’Agostino said it was important to not change the aspects of Monte’s that made it a popular down-town destination for years, which is why the interior and most of the staff has stayed the same.

But he said longtime cus-tomers agreed there was one necessary change – a revamp of the menu that they told him “needed a little kick in the butt.”

D’Agostino soon “gutted” the menu, introducing his own creations that he said are a blend of the places he’s been and the styles he’s learned across the world.

“We have Asian, Italian, French and some Southern dishes,” he said.

His caramelized sea scal-lops with butternut squash puree and Andouille sau-sage served with garlic jasmine rice was intro-duced as a fall dish. But it ended up being so popular that it’s now permanently on the menu.

D’Agostino also added lunch hours last year, and Monte’s started serving brunch earlier this sum-mer.

Glenda, his wife and the mother of their three kids, works at Monte’s, hosting during the lunch rush and handling some of the bookkeeping.

He and Hurder are keep-ing their eyes open for more opportunities in the community, D’Agostino said, and the pair has looked into sandwich shops, event centers and other options that fell through. They’re now considering a new restau-rant, but he said they’re not going to “hastily” decide on anything until they’re sure it’s a good fit.

For now, D’Agostino said he spends about half of his time in the kitchen of Mon-te’s and the other half handling the day-to-day necessities of managing a full bar and restaurant.

It might not have been his original plan, but he said he was attracted to Fargo-Moorhead where he saw his chance to be a “big fish in a small town” – especially with Sarello’s operating as the only fine dining restaurant at the time.

That’s changed with competitors like Monte’s, the HoDo and Mezzaluna opening in downtown Fargo, he said.

But D’Agostino said hav-ing more fish in a small pond has only been a good thing for Fargo-Moorhead diners.

“The food is better now, here, there and everywhere else, because then you have the competition,” he said. “You have to up your game to compete. I think that this community’s food scene can now compete with any of your major cities.”

Nasello, too, said it’s a good thing to have his former employee running Monte’s on the other side of the Red River from Sarello’s.

“It can only better serve the community when you have talent like Christian and myself doing the things that we like to do,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587