Chef Michael Toscano and his wife, Caitlin, are no strangers to New York City’s high-stakes dining scene, having time spent at Babbo and Craft among other notable fine dining destinations.
However, after leaving New York City to raise a family and open Le Farfalle in Charleston, S.C., the offer to return to the exact same space where they previously ran the lauded and now-closed Perla was too appealing to pass up. And the influence of Charleston’s passionate food community, along with the success of Le Farfalle’s menu, has brought unmistakable Southern flair to the Italian cuisine at their newly opened Manhattan restaurant, Da Toscano.
“Leaving the big city and going down to Charleston and experiencing these kinds of people and the care that they take for their clients, it’s really fun,” says Toscano.
Tank Jackson of Charleston-based Holy City Hogs, who offers famed Ossabaw Island hogs, among other heritage breeds, to several restaurants across the country, drives up to New York City every week to deliver one whole hog to Da Toscano, which is then used in dishes like the porchetta chop.
Other Charleston-area–made products, like High Wire Distilling’s Southern Amaro Liqueur, fit in perfectly with the latest Italian food and drink trends. The distillery’s amaro, made from South Carolina’s famed black tea, is one of many examples of Italian and Southern food cultures’ increasing convergence.
Before he began to cook for himself, Toscano remembers special occasions when his mother would roast a beef head in the oven overnight before turning it into tamales the next day. It was that dish that served as inspiration for Da Toscano’s veal head parmigiana. Made with tongue, cheek, and the prized meat found under the eye socket, the terrine is then seasoned with spices and parmigiano before being breaded and fried.
“That’s an exciting dish for me because it’s taking the familiar and taking my background and putting it together in a very subtle way,” Toscano says.
Asking for seconds
The ability to open a restaurant is challenging enough. But doing so in downtown New York, particularly when your résumé includes a James Beard Award nomination and a two-star review from the New York Times (as Toscano’s does), elevates expectations among critics and diners. Add in the fact you’re cooking Italian food in New York, and you’re going to get just as many opinions to match the diversity of offerings.
“There’s New York Italian, which we love so much, and then there’s regional Italian cuisine. What I do is kind of a cross between the two,” Toscano says. The chef leans on what products are available in the regions where he has networks, aiming to turn those into what he hopes can become new New York Italian classics.
Roasted oysters—a hallmark of Southern cooking—are served at Da Toscano with crab fat and chili vinegar. And variations of dishes that originated at Le Farfalle, including octopus carpaccio and fideos pasta, have made their way to Manhattan.
Toscano admits he was ready to launch a second restaurant in Charleston, and moving back to New York wasn’t originally planned. But he says the return to New York has been easier than expected. “To be back here in New York with all that I’ve learned and experienced, I feel more prepared than ever,” Toscano says. “We love being in Charleston, but we cut our teeth in New York City, and it’s hard to completely just step away from that.”
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