From Jersey to Disney: It’s a Small World

Disney’s Chef Phil Ponticelli chats with Jersey Bites about pizza, bagels, and his Garden State roots. He also gives us some last-minute holiday tips.

Chef's Domain with Chef Phil
Back in the warm days of early October, I attended the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival at Walt Disney World Resort. It was the first time I had been to Disney in about 12 years, and while there are tons of new attractions and shows, I was glad to see one thing that hadn’t changed a bit: the nametag sported by each employee (aka Cast Member), letting the world know his or her hometown.

Whether it’s the Fast Pass checker at Space Mountain, the guy selling giant turkey legs at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios), or Chef Phil Ponticelli—the Chef de Cuisine at Cítricos in Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa (yes, it’s as wonderful as it sounds)—I always get a charge out of seeing New Jersey noted on a nametag. I had the pleasure of meeting Chef Phil during a dinner at Cítricos, and it made my day when I saw that his nametag said “Toms River, New Jersey.”

Chef PhilThe youngest of six kids in a military family, Phil spent part of his childhood in the Azores, off of Portugal, but most of it in the Garden State. He grew up near the water, on Barnegat Bay, and lived in Gilford Park. “I had a sailboat,” he says. “I’d catch killies and baby eels, and I’d go up to the bait store with my bicycle and my bucket and sell my stuff and then go buy candy.”

His beachfront career didn’t end at the bait shop. “I used to work on the Seaside Park boardwalk. I was on of those barkers, working the wheels,” he says, before treating me to a few delightful seconds of his skillful boardwalk barking.

Chef Phil’s resume is nothing short of impressive: When he was just 14, Phil got a job working for Tomas Filomina, then Executive Chef at NYC’s Plaza Hotel. He went on to attend The Culinary Institute of America, followed by two years as a chef in a restaurant in American Samoa. A background in bread and pastry helped Phil establish himself on the restaurant scene in Washington, D.C. where he also got to know Walter Scheib, who was the White House Executive Chef from 1994 to 2005.

Since starting out at Disney in 1996, he’s held posts at several Disney restaurants, including California Grill and Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano, and is now Chef de Cuisine at Cítricos. He says, “California Grill showed Disney that fine dining could be done and that the people really wanted it.” Of Mama Melrose, he says, “It’s a busy place—they make six, seven hundred pizzas for lunch, all hand tossed. All that pizza stuff comes from my time in Jersey. Maruca’s in Seaside Park is, I think, one of my favorite pizzas. They are the best.”

Chef Phil proceeds to tell me about his appreciation for New Jersey’s delis, pastries, and bagels. Especially bagels. “The lady who cuts my hair [in Florida] works at the Grand Floridian,” he says. “She goes home to Hoboken once a month, so when she comes back she brings me bagels. Otherwise I don’t eat bagels.”

We go on to discuss what makes a good slice of pizza. “Good crust, good sauce, and good cheese,” Phil says. “Those components need to be there. And good olive oil. If you have a lousy cheese and someone who can’t make crust, you don’t have a pizza.” His secret? “The water definitely makes a difference. When I make my pizza dough here, I use bottled water.”

While he makes it up to New Jersey about twice a year, Chef Phil loves meeting people from his home state in the Cítricos dining room. “’The Toms River Little League champions,’ I get that a lot,” he says. “They also hear it in my voice. As you can see, I can’t get rid of the accent. It’s pretty much embedded in me. My children have never lived in New Jersey, but they all have Jersey accents.”

Jersey Bites scored a few of Chef Phil’s tips for serving dinner at the holidays. “Everybody likes cranberry sauce, but they’re sometimes afraid to use fresh cranberries,” he says. “You take a bag of fresh cranberries, and you take a can of cranberries. Add a little orange juice, a cinnamon stick, boil all that together.” If you’re not doing the cranberry sauce thing this season (or even if you are), another approach Phil suggests for infusing your home with the aroma of holidays is to set up a pot on the stove with cinnamon and ginger simmering in the background. “It makes it smell like apple pie,” Phil says. “You make your own potpourri. If you have a fireplace, you could put a pot of that on your fireplace and let it go. The heat from that will warm it.”

“Try to do as much stuff ahead of time as possible,” he suggests. “Go out and buy turkey necks and make a really nice turkey stock for your gravy. Save your bread. We never throw anything out. If we have leftover bread from dinner, I throw it in a glass jar and let it dry out, or I throw it in the oven after I’ve turned off the oven, and let it dry out. And turn it into breadcrumbs.”

As for garnishing a plate, Chef Phil sticks to one rule: “Keep things fresh.” He goes on to explain that sometimes less is more. “A little bit of fresh herbs goes a long way,” Phil says. “And I mean a little. You don’t want to turn it into a salad. I try not to put anything in a dish that doesn’t belong. If I have a mushroom risotto, I might garnish it with a crispy, fried mushroom. Your garnish should tie into your dish.” Phil is also a proponent of everything on the plate actually being edible. “Don’t put a branch of rosemary on top of this beautiful pork chop that you just grilled. Who’s going to eat that branch of rosemary? If you take that branch and maybe brush the plate with it, and then put the pork chop on it, you get the flavor from that rosemary without chewing on these sticks.”

In the Cítricos dining room, when fellow Jerseyites see “Toms River” on Phil’s nametag, they respond with heartfelt pride. One response Phil says he gets fairly often is, “Nice to see a Toms River boy make good.” Ain’t that the truth.

Cítricos EntranceFor more info about Cítricos, click here.

All photos: Copyright 2010, The Walt Disney Company.

Rachel Bozek is a freelance writer and editor based in suburban Essex County. She grew up in Bergen County, and has lost track of how much time she’s spent on LBI and in the Wildwoods. Her search for the perfect pancake continues.