It can take its time, but eventually summer comes to South County. It’s not just blooms that open; there’s a string of seasonal restaurants that stretch out along the sand. Some may come and go, but Maria’s Seaside Cafe is a particularly obstinate piece of Misquamicut, reborn as part of an ambitious boutique hotel project after Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of the original building. In a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Chef Rafael Rosas was back at Maria’s as soon as the restaurant was up and running again, and is now in his 17th year at the restaurant. Among various topics, my chat with Rosas turned to one less dramatic than hurricanes, but still crucially important: cannoli.
It’s rare to have a long run in the competitive restaurant world. How did you get your start?
I began in New York City at an Italian restaurant, working as a dishwasher, prep cook, cook – you know, the whole nine yards. I just learned as I went. I’ve always worked in Italian restaurants.
What brings you back every season?
I’ve always liked the water and I enjoy being by the beach. Most of all, I like the people here a lot. The owners give me all the tools to make it easy for me. The atmosphere at Maria’s is great.
What are some new tools you’ve got to play with?
This year we got a new gelato maker and a new pasta machine. Ninety percent of the pasta we serve is fresh. It’s really easy to make fresh pasta, but you need the time and the right product. The restaurant was hit by the hurricane four years ago, so we had to replace everything then. The owners don’t limit me. Every year they invest in making the place nicer and cozier for the customers.
What about sourcing?
The owners give me the freedom to order all the best products so I can perform and be a better chef and put quality food on the table. This makes it easy, because I believe that a chef is only as good as his ingredients. Fresh fish, organic chicken, free-range pork – we get all these quality products. We’re in an area that is very productive for clams, scallops and lobsters, all the seafood that you can imagine. We get 90 percent of the seafood from Sea Well, a local place.
What’s new this year?
The restaurant industry is so huge right now; every year we update the menu and try to buy better local products. This season we added lobster ravioli in a lobster broth and truffle oil, as well as cheese ravioli.
I hear the regulars like the cannoli.
Our cannoli is made with both almond and regular flour and instead of frying it, we bake it. This makes it lighter. It’s filled with ricotta, mascarpone and vanilla cream. Our cream is very light and we make a chocolate soup on the bottom and hazelnut semifreddo on top with a raspberry sauce. It makes for a sophisticated and classy version of a cannoli.
What is the buzz as you gear up for this time of year?
This is a family-owned restaurant and the owners know a lot of people. The patrons cannot wait for the restaurant to open because they want to try the new additions and specials. People are excited when the sun comes out; they want to be here at the beach. Seventy percent of the people that come to the restaurant know me. I’ve been here too long, I guess!