It’s clear from your first steps into Tiffani Faison’s new restaurant Orfano, that this is not your typical Italian trattoria. Lady Gaga stares at you, spaghetti spilling from her lips, in a large-scale portrait on the wall. A photo of Anna Pellegrino Rao of the iconic NYC Italian restaurant Rao’s keeps a glamorous, watchful eye over the bar. The interior is a visual feast of purple velvet, glittering crystal and sleek chrome. Nonna is nowhere in sight.
“We had the idea of a very old-school space that has a lot of character and a lot of charm and a lot of polish,” says Faison. “We’ve worked really hard to present that through a new lens with touches that make you feel really comfortable but shake up a bit of the space that you’re in and the food that you’re eating.”
Faison opened the restaurant with her business partner and wife Kelly Walsh at the end of August. It’s the first restaurant they’ve opened together since unifying their portfolios under Big Heart Hospitality, a conglomerate that now has over 200 employees. Orfano joins Faison and Walsh’s three other restaurants, Tiger Mama, Fool’s Errand and Sweet Cheeks Q, all on the same Boylston Street block in the Fenway neighborhood.
Orfano has been a long time coming. Faison says she’s been brainstorming ways to create a new-generation Italian hotspot since she was executive chef at the much-loved South End hangout Rocca in 2010. “I thought a lot about the expectations of Italian food in Americans’ palates. I thought a lot about Italian-American food and what that is. It definitely got the ball rolling in my head,” she says.
On Orfano’s menu, you’ll find items you’re familiar with that have been revamped for Faison’s contemporary vision. The classic eggplant or chicken parmesan has been swapped for a pork iteration breaded and fried in the Japanese Tonkatsu style and stuffed with mozzarella. The sauces are poured around the dish to maintain a crispy texture.
In her version of stuffed clams, Faison takes the recipe a tiny but important step further. “Instead of just chopping clams and putting them in the stuffing, there’s a whole clam on the bottom and then that’s dressed with a little bit of garlic butter,” says Faison. “I know that sounds like it’s minor, but for me that’s the approach of thinking about things in this way.”
Faison is known for supporting other women in the industry, and Orfano radiates female power from the staff to the décor. Orfano boasts a predominantly female leadership team, including Michele Carter as creative culinary director, Dee Steffen Chinn as pastry chef and Nicole Valva as general manager.
“The way we support women is by creating female leadership,” Faison says. “It’s important to do it because they are not voices that are in any way socialized to expect women to be quiet, or to be demure, or to not share their ideas, or to not be assertive.” As Faison has proven, women know what other women are capable of and can support their growth accordingly.
Faison’s top priority always is providing impeccable hospitality, whether it be found in the martini bar cart that can be called table-side, in the décor that can easily house a team of female mobsters or in the menu that gives comfort food a bright twist.
In addition to “full,” Faison hopes every guest leaves feeling, “comforted, reinvigorated and taken care of.” And, that’s something Nonna can agree with.