Chef Peter Sclafani III has purchased an ownership stake in Phil’s Oyster Bar and Seafood Restaurant, where he is taking over culinary duties as executive chef.
Sclafani joins brothers Anthony and Jordan Piazza as a partner in the popular neighborhood restaurant, which was operated for years on Government Street by the Piazzas’ father, the late Gus Piazza, and reopened in the fall of 2016 in the Southdowns Shopping Center.
Sclafani began working with the Piazzas on a consulting basis early this year, following his split from Ruffino’s restaurant and longtime partner Ruffin Rodrigue. At the time, he was considering building a restaurant consulting business and working with several clients that included T.J. Ribs.
“But the more we worked together (here), the more I heard the vision that Jordan and Anthony have for growing the brand,” Sclafani says. “I realized this could be a great opportunity. To me, being with these guys feels like family.”
That brand-growing vision includes the possibility of opening other Phil’s locations and new restaurant concepts, Sclafani and the Piazzas say. It will likely also include developing a catering operation. And it already has brought some tweaks and improvements to the Phil’s menu.
“We are not fundamentally changing the restaurant,” Sclafani says. “It’s little tweaks here and there and putting systems in place, making sure you can reproduce things over and over. But you will start to see some of my influence coming in, and I’ll be leveraging my relationship with seafood wholesalers. Things like that.”
Sclafani grew up in a restaurant family, and his grandparents owned an eponymous seafood and Italian restaurant in Metairie. He joined the Baton Rouge culinary scene in 1998 as chef at DiNardo’s, which became Ruffino’s under the ownership of the late T. J. Moran. Sclafani and Ruffino ran the restaurant for Moran and later bought into the business, acquiring it from Moran outright in 2009. For the next decade, they would grow it to become one of Baton Rouge’s finest restaurants, with a second location in River Ranch and a catering business.
Last fall, Sclafani and Rodrigue parted way over differing visions for the business. On March 22, they finalized a deal that had been in the works since the split: Rodrigue bought the Highland Road restaurant for $3.5 million, clearing the way for Sclafani to move forward with his new plans.
While tweaking the menu and perfecting processes at a neighborhood seafood house is very different than designing the kind of dishes that earned Sclafani accolades at Ruffino’s—and invitations to cook at the James Beard House in New York—he says casual food can be just as challenging and fun to prepare as fancier fare.
“You can serve things at a lower price point without white table cloths,” he says. “But you don’t have to sacrifice the quality or the culture.”