Craig Polignano is Jersey and proud of it. The new executive chef of the expanding Ryland Inn has lived in a half-dozen area towns, from Millburn to High Bridge, graduated from Ridge High School and started his career path at area pizzerias.
He's of Italian descent and one of three boys “who love to eat.” Among his fondest memories were the regular Sunday visits with his Italian grandparents in Maplewood, where he says he would help harvest the tomatoes and basil while his grandmother was inside making pasta.
There were also a lot of figs. His grandfather wrapped the trees in quilts and covered the blankets with plastic to protect them through our cold winters. “I've been reading that you're not supposed to do that,” says Polignano. “It worked for my grandfather.”
“My mother was also a fantastic cook,” he adds, but largely stopped when he was in high school. “She was making our lives better by working hard,” he explains, as a director at a school for autistic children by day and a doctoral student in the evening.
Youngest son Craig often ate at his after-school job in a pizza restaurant, and also would cook with his dad. Or, as he puts it, laughing, “We were left to fend for ourselves. If we were cooking, I was in charge. Dad would make bad ravioli using pasta sauce from a jar.”
After Ridge, Poliglnano went to the University of Connecticut for a year, studying business with an eye toward advertising art but missing the kitchen. He left UConn for the Culinary Institute of America. When it came time to find an internship, he landed an unpaid position in Craig Shelton's kitchen at Ryland Inn. Polignano describes the four-and-a-half month internship as “probably the four toughest months of my life, and the four best months.”
“It was a transition period for me. I had the opportunity to go from pizza to fine dining, in what better place than the best fine dining restaurant in the state.”
He still loves pizza, but has stuck with fine dining kitchens ever since, starting with a paid job at Ryland Inn for more than five years, leaving to become sous chef at Copeland in the Westin Governor Morris in Morristown, then becoming chef de cuisine at The Bernards Inn.
Yes the setting and weather were beautiful, he says. Yes, it was great having access to local produce year-round. And the Ryland Inn was shuttered. “It was a transition period for me. I had the opportunity to go from pizza to fine dining, in what better place than the best fine dining restaurant in the state.”
Bucco left the Ryland in the summer, to take a job with the Jonathan Waxman Group, and Polignano had his “dream job. So many people walked through this door that I admire and emulate. It's the mecca of New Jersey fine dining, the most special restaurant in New Jersey and I'm honored to be a part of it.”
Growing up in an Italian-American home, and having grandparents who had immigrated here from Italy, meant “everything focuses on food,” said Polignano. “The kitchen is the heart of the home. We spent holidays in the kitchen with my mother. I took away the overall experience of that,” notably the power of “warming, comfort food.”
In summer that “comfort food” included an heirloom tomato soup with a black-truffle-cheese and brioche grilled cheese sandwich.