Meet the woman behind Peppino’s Neapolitan’s rebrand

Meet the woman behind Peppino’s Neapolitan's rebrand

Sarah Hassler, the downtown Syracuse restaurant's first female head chef, is launching Pomodoro this month.
Published: December 14, 2018
Sarah Hassler, the first female chef for Peppino’s Neapolitan in downtown Syracuse.
Head chef Sarah Hassler in the Peppino's Neapolitan dining room.

Sarah Hassler, the woman behind The Stoop, is rebranding Peppino’s Neapolitan as Pomodoro next month. As Peppino’s first female head chef, Hassler is drastically reinventing the restaurant’s culture.

This is not Hassler’s first time updating a restaurant. While working at The Stoop Kitchen, Hassler recalls putting in 90 hours a week. Hassler brought vegan cheese plates into the food scene, and she changed The Stoop’s menu every six weeks while working with 90 percent local ingredients. She worked on The Stoop for 9 months prior to its opening and talks about it fondly, calling it her baby. She put her job before the relationships in her life and her own mental health.

Although she was the executive chef, she didn’t have the title or pay to go with the amount of work she was shouldering. “I was trapped in my own little cage that I built for myself,” Hassler says.  

She remembers the “thunderbolt” moment when she realized she was giving too much of herself and not getting enough back. Although she was the boss, she was carrying a case of chicken from the basement to the third floor and thought to herself, “Why am I doing this?”

In the food industry, men make 22 percent more than women do, according to Data USA. Hassler says that she quit to step up for herself and the women in her industry. She knew it was time for her to move on to her next big project. “I had to leave my baby,” she says. “But it’s ok. [Peppino’s Neapolitan] is now my adopted child.”

At Peppino’s Neapolitan, soon to be rebranded as Pomodoro, Hassler has a five-day workweek, allotting herself time to go to trivia and open mic nights with friends, as well as practicing yoga every morning with her cat. She is a managing partner, as well as the executive chef, and her pay reflects her work.

Like a majority of other restaurants, Peppino’s has never had a female chef or manager before Hassler. According to a Data USA statistic, 78.4 percent of head chefs are male.

Peppino's Neapolitan rebranding as Pomodoro is expected this month.
The quattro carne pizza at Peppino's Neapolitan in downtown Syracuse.

Because of this, the transition has been difficult. For the first month, Hassler’s employees looked at her like she was an alien. “They’re all like, this lady isn’t going to last. She’s a girl, so she’s not going to last,” says Hassler. Instead of charging in, Hassler spent the first two weeks listening.

“I think they expected me to come in like a bull in a china shop,” says Hassler. However, she knew that she had to approach it carefully in order to build something that would withstand time. “If you tear everything apart and make it your own, the team doesn’t work with you.”

She relates fixing restaurant culture to a broken arm. “The healing has to come from the inside,” says Hassler. Her employees have to learn to trust her. “There’s no anecdote, it just takes time.”

Hassler is slowly improving Peppino’s inside and out, from the rebranding and the new menu, to making the walk-in look like it came out of Better Homes and Gardens. “Everyday that goes by, we get a little closer,” she says. “They realize I’m not the enemy.”

Hassler leads her kitchen a little different than the chefs you see on TV.  When she was younger, she says she was “much more Gordon Ramsey-esque.” She would yell at the cooks. “It didn’t do any good. It didn’t accomplish anything other than raising my blood pressure,” says Hassler.

Hassler says the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll glamorization of chef life is coming to an end. “That culture is not sustainable. It’s going to kill, literally, the good ones,” she says, referencing Anthony Bourdain. She runs a drug and alcohol-free kitchen. Her team isn’t even allowed to take cigarette breaks during service.

“As much as I want to help people, I really sincerely do, this isn’t a rehab center. This is where people come to be taken care of, and not the cooks, but the guests,” Hassler says.

The whole point of what she does, she says, is to be warm. And that comes out in the dishes. “I don’t think it’s really possible to have a successful restaurant where the kitchen — which is at the core of everything  is abusive,” says Hassler.

Hassler says she wanted to become a chef because she thought she could do better than the chefs she grew up working for. She began working in restaurants when she was 17 and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America when she was 28. When she moved to Syracuse to open The Stoop, she had with no knowledge of Syracuse’s pizza and wings culture. 

Pizza and a glass of red wine at Peppino's, soon to be Pomodoro
Pizza and a glass of red wine at Peppino's, soon to be Pomodoro

Hassler considered moving to Pittsburgh or Buffalo after leaving The Stoop, but she recognized that this is a formative time in Syracuse’s food culture. Hassler wants to make a lasting impact. “The tide is turning,” she says, “and I want to help that. That’s part of my mission. … I don’t want to hitch my wagon on someone else’s train. I want to be driving.”

Peppino’s, built around the concept of cooking pizzas in 90 seconds, will focus less on pizza and more on upscale and modernized Italian dishes for dinner. The pasta and the pizza dough will continue to be made in-house. And yes, there will be a vegan cheese board.

Hassler is passionate about inclusivity in menus and is implementing vegan-friendly and gluten-free options, a rare practice amongst most Italian restaurants.

She’s not going to commit to 90 percent local ingredients though. The owner, John Vigliotti, has sourced the best ingredients like tomatoes and cheeses from Italy to retain that true Italian flavor, making a local-only menu unattainable. 

When taste testing the new menu, Hassler recommends that indecisive eaters try some of the following dishes:

Charred octopus: Served with smoky white beans, pickled fennel, salsa verde, and fried capers.
Roasted mushrooms: Served with cinnamon, sage, Marcona almonds, and shallot marmalade.
Butternut gnocchi: Served with sage, brown butter, limoncello, pickled squash, black garlic, crispy kale, and bleu cheese.
The cheese boards: Available with real local cheeses or vegan substitutes.

Peppino’s Neapolitan — soon to be Pomodoro — is located in Armory Square, at 409 S. Clinton Street, and is open for lunch and dinner.