By ANDY GRAY
NILES - Richard ''Chookie'' Alberini has spent his entire life in restaurants.
His family opened its original Alberini's pizza / pasta place in 1957 and moved to its current location on Youngstown Warren Road in Niles in 1961, the year after he was born.
He started working there as a dishwasher at age 15 and was cooking on the line at age 18.
These days, he spends more time working the front of the house and handling the business side of the restaurant than filling orders, but that doesn't mean he wants to cook lavish, complex dinners when he's at home.
Veal with hot peppers, tomato and garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 oz. veal eye of round or veal
1/2 cup sliced hot peppers in oil
10-12 grape tomatoes sliced in half
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons thinly-sliced basil
Slice the veal into six 2-ounce pieces, pounding them out if necessary so the slices are between 1/8- and 1/4-inch thick. Season with salt and pepper.
Heat olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Dredge the slices of veal in the flour and cook them in the pan until they start to brown, about two minutes on each side.
Remove the veal from the pan and put on serving plates.
Add the hot peppers and tomatoes to the same pan the veal was cooked in and use a spatula to loosen any dried bits of flour / veal on the bottom of the pan. Cook for a couple minutes until the flavors meld.
Add a splash of white wine to the pan and the garlic near the end of the cooking time so it doesn't burn.
Pour the mixture over the cooked veal and top with the thinly-sliced basil.
''It's my job to make lavish and ornate here,'' he said. ''On my day off, I don't want a lot of labor-intensive food 'cause I'm not getting paid for it.''
The restaurant does get some credit for teaching him his favorite ''day off'' dish - veal with hot peppers, tomatoes and garlic.
''I remember in the late '70s, the old Italian guys would come in - and it wasn't on the menu back then - and they would ask for the chefs to make pan-fried veal with hot peppers and garlic,'' Alberini said.
He didn't understand what the fuss was about until he tasted it.
''It's just simple and Italian,'' he said. ''It's simplicity with noble ingredients.''
Alberini grew up in a family of great cooks. There's no meal he looks forward to more than his mother's stuffed calamari in red sauce over linguine, which is served every year on Christmas Eve.
''The calamari gives a certain flavor to the tomato sauce that you can't duplicate any other way,'' he said.
And he still remembers the education his father, Richard Alberini Sr., gave him in fine dining.
''When I was 10, my father took me to my first fancy restaurant in New York City - the Cattleman, a famous steakhouse,'' Alberini said. ''Dad ordered me shrimp cocktail and taught me how to dip it in the sauce. He ordered me a New York strip steak and taught me how to cut it. I had one of those little 8- 10-ounce bottles of Coke. I remember thinking, 'I like this.'''
But even with all of those foodies in the family, Alberini said it was Frank Salerno, who was a maitre d' at Alberini's when he started cooking there, who helped cultivate his love of food. He would go to Salerno's house, and Salerno would pluck ingredients fresh from the garden and prepare them.
''It took being around someone like that, who was so passionate about what he did and how he did it, that got me interested,'' he said.
Alberini admitted his wife Brigette does most of the cooking at home. He particularly likes her beef and vegetable soup, and said she makes a broccoli, cheese and rice casserole that belongs on the menu at the restaurant. More than once, recipes his wife has prepared at home have inspired dishes that he served at the restaurant.
When he does get in the kitchen, the veal dish is one of his favorites.
''I'll do this on a Sunday at home. Make sure I have a nice crusty bread, a great bottle of Cab and make this for myself.''
Starting with a quality cut of veal is important, he said, and the entree comes together fast without too much prep time.
One thing that gives Alberini's veal dish its zing are the hot peppers that the restaurant serves and sells. Instead of canning their peppers in the summer, Alberini said they make them fresh every couple days and allow the salt in the mixture of oil, garlic, oregano and other seasonings to soften the peppers.
And there is no vinegar in Alberini's peppers.
''I don't like 'em with vinegar,'' he said.
Alberini recommends putting the garlic in at the end of the cooking time so it doesn't burn. And a splash of wine helps bring all of the flavors together.
''I like wine when I'm cooking,'' he said. ''Sometimes I even put it in the food.''