WINCHESTER — Chef Daniel Hayes made his wife a promise years ago that he would never open his own restaurant.
Well, you know what they say about promises.
Hayes recently opened Curto’s Wood Fired Foods at 212 Grocery Ave, in the Orrick Commons shopping center at the corner of Greenwood and Senseny roads. The spot was the home of PizzAmore, owned by Vittorio and Susan Castiglia, longtime local restaurateurs.
Although this is his first restaurant, Hayes is no stranger to the kitchen or to running a business.
The New England native earned his restaurant stripes by preparing lobster for tourists on Nantucket island. After moving south, he cooked at Nathan’s in Georgetown, L’Auberge Provencal in Great Falls, among other places. After moving to Frederick County in 1994, he worked for several years as the executive chef at Winchester Country Club so he could enjoy steady hours while his children were growing up.
Lately, though, he’s been passionate about cooking with a wood-fired oven. He operates a wood-fired oven business that creates pizzas for Barrel Oak Winery in Delaplane and B Chord Brewing Company in western Loudoun County. He also owns a mobile oven that can be rented out for parties, weddings and other events.
“I got pizza ovens spread out all over the place,” he said.
To grow his business he needed a base of operations, someplace with a walk-in cooler to store his perishables.
So when he heard the Castiglias’ place was available, it seemed like a good opportunity — even though it was the middle of a pandemic and it also meant breaking his promise to his wife.
Hayes immediately went about tearing the place apart to make it his own. He named his new restaurant after his maternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Curto. Hayes has fond memories of going over to his grandmother’s house every Sunday for delicious family meals.
In addition to family photos, he’s decorated the restaurant with a large poster of Anthony Bourdain because people often comment that he looks the celebrity chef and TV host who died in 2018.
The star of Curto’s, though, is the wood-fired oven, a bright apple red appliance that heats to more than 800 degrees. The oven is fueled by oak, split by Hayes himself from trees on property he owns in West Virginia.
“I didn’t want a conventional pizza oven,” he said. “Everyone in town has that.”
The Curto’s menu features a variety of pizzas, of course, but also pastas, subs and wings.
“Everything is cooked in the brick oven,” said Hayes as he slid a cast-iron pan full of lasagna into the oven. “We don’t fry anything.”
Diners can create their own pizzas or enjoy one of Curto’s specialties such as Prosciutto and Pineapple, White Pizza, BBQ Chicken or The Ballpark, which has all the tastes of a sausage sub but with a pesto twist.
Pasta dishes include Baked Ziti, Eggplant Parmesan and Classic Grandma’s Spaghetti and Meatballs. There’s also Balsamic Glazed Caprese Chicken, served with sundried tomato polenta, and Cedar Planked Salmon, which comes with roasted potato wedges on a bed of fresh spinach.
Appetizers include Dry Rubbed Brick Oven Wings, Warm Assorted Olives and Hayes’ signature appetizer — an Eggplant Terrine, a complex dish that layers cooked vegetables and goat cheese.
For those on special diets, zucchini noodles can be substituted for pasta, and the pizzas can be made with gluten-free dough.
“We sell a good amount of those,” he said. “It is actually really, really good dough. It is a true vegan dough.”
Curto’s is open from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and from noon to 8 p.m. on Sundays. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Since its opening, Curto’s has been doing a brisk take-out business. Under COVID restrictions the restaurant can also seat 24 people, so reservations are recommended by calling 540-723-4650.
Hayes shared his recipe for his signature appetizer of Eggplant Terrine.
Serve 8 to 10
3 large eggplants
1 head garlic
2 cups olive oil
2 ripe tomatoes
2 yellow peppers
2 red peppers
10 leaves fresh spinach
6 leaves fresh basil
3 sprigs fresh thyme
9 ounces of goat cheese
3 ounces of unflavored gelatin
3 cups chicken consomme
1. Thinly slice eggplant lengthwise. Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in large skillet and saute slices on each side for about 1 minute. Sprinkle with chopped garlic to taste and 1 basil leaf. Drain well on paper towel and set aside half the eggplant to prepare in the terrine. Puree the rest in a food processor to serve on toast.
2. Cut tomatoes in quarters and saute in hot 1/4 cup of olive oil for about 2 minutes. Add chopped garlic to taste and 1 basil leaf, salt and pepper. Drain tomatoes on paper towel.
3. Saute spinach leaves in hot 1/4 cup of oil for 5 to 10 seconds and drain.
4. Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in deep skillet and fry yellow and red peppers about 10 minutes, until they peel easily. Set aside with seasoning and 1 basil leaf chopped and sprinkled on top.
5. Puree goat cheese in food processor with 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, the thyme and rosemary to taste.
6. In a 3- to 4-inch deep terrine — a 9- by 10-inch bread pan will do — arrange fried eggplant slices in the bottom of pan. Pour 2 tablespoons of gelatin on top. Next layer half the spinach and 1 tablespoon of gelatin. Next layer half the cooked tomatoes and 1 tablespoon of gelatin. Add layer of goat cheese, then yellow peppers and 1 tablespoon of gelatin. Add remaining tomatoes, then remaining spinach. Cover with remaining eggplant and gelatin. Refrigerate overnight with a weight on top.
7. To serve, unmold terrine on a cookie sheet and divide in 1/2- to 1-inch thick slices. Pour vinaigrette (mix 1 cup olive oil with 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, salt and pepper) on serving plates, add a slice of terrine and serve.