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Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Red Barn: A Stable of Hearty Classics in a Rustic Setting

The Red Barn: A Stable of Hearty Classics in a Rustic Setting
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Dec. 2011 Fairfield County Life Magazine)

There are few structures in Westport more recognizable than The Red Barn, literally a stone’s throw from the Merritt Parkway at 292 Wilton Road. Once part of the Dunham Farm, the barn has been a restaurant since 1932, and under the ownership of the Nistico family since 1983. The landmark has earned a loyal following through consistently good fare, seasonal variation and a welcoming setting.

Coincidentally, the family has been involved in the restaurant business since 1932, when Frank and Giovanna Nistico opened the Arrow restaurant at the corner of Franklin Street and Saugatuck Avenue in Saugatuck. The Italian eatery moved to nearby Charles Street in 1952 and was taken over by the couple’s sons, Frank, Jr., Joe and Lou. Frank, Jr. bartended and his son, Frank, now 62 and one of four owners of The Red Barn, began helping out at a young age as a bar back, operating the dishwasher. Frank’s younger brother and Red Barn co-owner Richard, 44, served as a waiter and bartender.

While Arrow remained in operation, Frank, Richard, their brother Tom, 61, and mother Virginia, 84, bought The Red Barn from Ruth Dunham, whose children didn’t want to continue leasing the business, three days before Halloween in 1984. After extensive renovations, the restaurant opened January 26, 1984.

“We completely gutted the place, right down to the studs, taking down all the cedar panels, refurbishing and replacing them,” said Frank. “It was pretty run down and needed rewiring and upgrades.”

With a new place came a new mission, according to Frank. “Arrow was focused on pasta and pizza. We wanted a change,” he said. “We began by offering a Sunday buffet brunch, the first in the area. We also introduced certified Angus beef and fresh fish, and hosted functions like weddings, rehearsals and Bar Mitzvahs. We never did that at Arrow.”

Ironically, the day Frank and his father first strolled into The Red Barn was the first time Frank had ever set foot in the restaurant. “I grew up on the street on Poplar Plains Road and we could never afford to come here,” he said. With 7,800 square feet of space, six dining rooms, four fireplaces and a patio on 3.6 acres, it was Frank’s virtual Shangri-La. He instantly fell in love with it, and bought it that day.

Both restaurants operated simultaneously until 1990 when Frank’s father got sick and Arrow was sold. Since, the family has honed Red Barn’s interior to include many antique farm implements and unique regional memorabilia.

Of course, the menu is the star attraction, facilitated by Head Chef John Delius, who has worked with the Nisticos for 46 years. “John has all the recipes – the sauces, doughs, pastas – in his head,” said Frank, “though we owners are very hands-on in the kitchen, too. Rich goes back to make the ricotta gnocchis, Tommy makes the steak bragioles and homemade roasted peppers and I help out with everything.”

Appetizers run $9 on average and include highlights like Oysters Rockefeller, Fried Calamari and French Onion soup. Salads run $5 with the exception of the Tommy Toss Salad at $8, consisting of salami, provolone, roasted red peppers, olives, pickled eggplant and many other fresh ingredients.

Four selections, priced around $15, fill the pasta category, headlined by the Penne a la Vodka, made with fresh light tomato vodka cream sauce.

Visitors seeking light fare can opt for a burger or the popular Chicken Pot Pie, listed at $13, though it’s the specialties to which patrons flock. Veal & Chicken dishes, which include Veal Parmigiana, Saltimbocca and Marsala, are tagged between $18 and $22. Fish & Seafood plates price out at $23-$25, with shrimp, sole, swordfish, scallops and tilapia filling the bill. The Certified Angus Beef dishes are a popular draw, ranging from a 5oz. Petite Filet Mignon at $25 to a 24oz. Porter House at $33.

Desserts include bread pudding, rice pudding, hot apple crisp, crème broulette and peach melba.

The menu changes with the seasons, from fish and light pasta dishes in the summer to heavier, more meaty selections like Osso Buco, stuffed veal chops and rack of lamb in the fall and winter.

It’s no surprise Red Barn is a destination for sports figures like Mark Bavarro and TV personalities like Regis Philbin. And you can bet matriarch Virginia will be there to greet them. “Mom is here seven days a week and keeps us all together,” said Frank. “She doesn’t consider it work and can always be found behind the register.” You could say she’s as much a Westport institution as the restaurant itself.

The Red Barn is located at 292 Wilton Road, Westport, CT. Phone: 203-222-9549. Open seven days a week. M-F: Lunch 11:30am-2pm; Dinner 5pm-9pm. SAT: Menu Brunch 11:30am-2pm; Dinner 5pm-9:30pm. SUN: Buffet Brunch 11am and 1:30pm; Dinner 5pm-8pm.