Leo Fascianella was a poor Italian teenager from Sicily when he left home in 1972. He arrived in the United States with no English skills, $50 in his pockets, and a love for cooking. He sought a better life with better opportunities, and that’s what he found in Omaha.
After 14 years working in various roles at local restaurants, he opened his own business, Pasta Amore e Fantasia. The popular Rockbrook Village restaurant celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. “I thought it might last 10 years,” Fascianella says. “I never imagined 30 years.”
His culinary passion kicked in when he was about 5 or 6 years old. Every time his mom left the house, he’d hightail it into the kitchen. As a boy, he helped out in his grandparents’ small restaurant in Italy.
“I was always in and out of kitchens,” Fascianella says. And he’s still there, with no plans to leave anytime soon. “I love my job. I love it—the creativity of it.”
The chef and restaurateur takes satisfaction in seeing his guests enjoy the food that comes out of his kitchen, whether it is a plate of eggplant parmigiana, lasagna, cannelloni, tortellini, or another dish. In the restaurant’s early days, pasta and salads made up the bulk of the menu, but the offerings have grown over the years to include daily specials and several beef, chicken, and fish entrees.
Seafood dishes are among his favorites to prepare. At Pasta Amore, the seafood options include a lightly breaded calamari steak with a caper-lemon cream sauce, and linguine amore—mussels, clams, white fish, and shrimp over angel hair pasta with an herbed tomato broth, artichoke hearts, and spinach.
Many of the fresh herbs and vegetables that find their way into the restaurant’s menu items are grown by Fascianella and his wife, Pat. They plant basil, rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme, mint, and parsley at their Omaha home and at the restaurant. The couple also tend a vegetable garden at their family farm along the Elkhorn River.
Incorporating fresh, local produce and other ingredients whenever possible is important to Fascianella, whose cuisine combines a seasonal approach with traditional Italian flavors. He also strives to use the finest ingredients, whether it’s high-quality tomatoes, imported olive oil, or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
In addition to cooking and gardening, Fascianella enjoys fishing and spending time with his family. He and Pat married in 1989. They have an adult daughter and two adult sons. Pat helps run the restaurant, and the children have all worked there at one time or another.
Fascianella says he treasures moments such as gathering around the table with his wife and children to share Sunday meals. “My family makes me happy,” he says.
Traveling to his native Sicily at least once a year is another source of joy. The trips take him back to his roots and allow him to reconnect with relatives and immerse himself in the region’s world-famous food and wine. The annual trips also help spark new ideas for dishes to introduce at Pasta Amore.
In 2009, Fascianella was inducted into the Omaha Restaurant Association’s Hospitality Hall of Fame. What he enjoys most about working in the restaurant business is that it changes all the time. “If you want to innovate in business, you have to change.”
Omaha’s culinary scene is a lot different now than it was when Fascianella opened Pasta Amore three decades ago. Attitudes toward food have also changed. “People are more aware of food. There are lots of cooking shows. People are more interested in food and trying new things, not just your average spaghetti-and-meatballs,” he says.
For Fascianella, a willingness to adapt to changing consumer tastes and maintain an active role in the kitchen have been key to his restaurant’s success. “I’m in the kitchen. I cook my lunches and dinners, and the food is good.”
And he’s also proud of the fact that in his 30 years at Pasta Amore, he has never taken a sick day. The secret to staying healthy, he says, is good food and happiness. “You have to be happy in what you do.”
Now that’s amore.
Visit pastaamore.com for more information.