Bertucci’s Corp.

At Bertucci’s Italian Restaurants, guests can watch their meals being prepared in an open kitchen, where the brick oven is the focal point. “Bertucci’s is a fun, lively environment that lends itself to families and groups of friends,” says Jeff Tenner, vice president and executive chef.

Based in Northborough, Mass., about 30 miles west of Boston, Bertucci’s has 95 locations that serve Italian cuisine, specializing in thin-crust Brick Oven Pizza, hearty pasta dishes like Lasagna Rustica, and flavorful salads like its Grilled Chicken Chopped salad with gorgonzola cheese.

Founder Joe Crugnale started Bertucci’s in 1981 in Somerville, Mass. The company grew steadily over the next three decades, establishing more than 30 locations in Massachusetts and growing south through Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and in downtown Washington, D.C.

Its most recent location opened this October in Bensalem, Pa. Today, Bertucci’s is a private company owned by a Boston-based private equity firm. The chef and leadership team endeavor to bring the same passion for the food and the business that inspired its founder.

While the menu started off simply and focused on pizza, the offerings grew over time to include a full selection of pastas and main courses, many of them healthier items. “Our focus on the Mediterranean diet helps with this, by complimenting every meal with salads or vegetable side dishes,” he says.

Tenner also highlights the restaurant’s Roasted Tuscan Vegetables, Baked Merluzzo, Salmon Florentine and Balsamic Chicken as examples of its lower-calorie items. “But, one of our hallmarks is that at lunchtime, everyone gets a big bowl of salad with their meal,” he says. “[It’s] our way of ensuring that everyone eats their veggies.”

Truth be told, Bertucci’s signature item (other than its pizza) is its rolls, which are baked fresh daily and made from dough that each restaurant produces in the true artisan bread fashion. The rolls are served with an herb-infused olive oil. “We also have a great carryout business and with online ordering now in place, it makes it easy to experience Bertucci’s in your home,” Tenner says.

Bertucci’s also has gluten-free items. Guests can enjoy appetizers like Mussels Caruso and Antipasto Misto, or gluten-free dinners like Grilled Filet Mignon with Chianti Sauce.

A Life in Food

A longtime veteran of the food industry, Tenner joined Bertucci’s this past July, becoming only the third chef to lead the company in its three decades of business.  Previously, he operated his own restaurants in Portsmouth, N.H (about an hour’s drive north of Boston), Lindberg’s Crossing Bistro and Wine Bar, and Ciento Tapas Bar, where for seven years, he earned acclaim for his bistro food and Spanish tapas.

After leaving Portsmouth, Tenner and his family moved to the Boston area where he joined the development team for Whole Foods Market’s Northeast region. In his role as culinary team leader, he developed menus and recipes that were produced in the region’s commissary and distributed to more than 30 stores from Boston to New York. It was in this role that he learned the details of manufacturing, distribution and the logistics to roll out recipes across a multi-unit organization.

His next move brought him to an iconic Boston restaurant company. Tenner served as the chef and executive culinary director for Legal Sea Foods, a family owned restaurant group that focuses on delivering the freshest seafood in the business. There, he managed the culinary operations and menu development for the company’s three concepts: Legal Sea Foods, Legal C Bar and Legal Test Kitchen. This position combined Tenner’s passion for restaurants with the skills he had learned about large-scale production, managing employees and being a leader.

After all these years, Tenner says he still enjoys working in the food industry. “It’s kind of a way of life,” he says, noting that he does not think he could have entered another profession. “I think of being a chef as not being a job, but a lifestyle,” he says.

“Cooking, eating and exploring food enters into every part of life,” he adds, noting that this can include spending time with his friends, where casual get-togethers can turn into team pasta making sessions.

Tenner and his wife also regularly explore local restaurants in their community, and he reads food-related books of all kinds, including cookbooks and chef biographies. “[I also take part in] community involvement that leverages cooking skills or food resources,” he states.

He notes that he was drawn to Bertucci’s by its approachability. “The concept has the ability to attract folks of all ages and introduce them to hand-crafted, house-made brick oven food,” Tenner explains.

“We are small enough to make changes in direction, yet large enough that our contribution to the food world and the communities where we do business can be great,” he continues. “It was a great time to join the team. The leadership team is open to new, fresh thinking and I am excited to put my years of experience to work.”

Tenner says he feels that Bertucci’s longevity is due to the fact that it makes all of its food fresh, particularly its bread and pizza. “We even go right to the source and procure our tomatoes for our house-made pomodoro sauce,” he states.

“As for fresh thinking, we’ll be working on a new approach in the coming years,” he adds.

“[We’ll be] paying close attention to how the Millennial generation and Generation Y are eating, gathering ideas and making changes to stay relevant,” he adds. “We are beginning to embrace social media and making subtle changes to make the brand more relevant to today’s consumer.” Tenner frequently posts on Facebook and its fans have continued to grow in numbers. They are a very engaged group and love to share their opinions and passion about food and Bertucci’s.

He also has started a monthly blog that will appear on the company’s website. Here, Tenner will share some of what’s happening behind the scenes with menu development, or share about a recent trip to visit one of its many growers or producers.

He adds that Bertucci’s success  is really due to the entire staff. “It is just a collective effort,” he says. “The servers, the cooks, the managers and the restaurant folks really make it happen.”

Slow and Steady

Bertucci’s celebrates its 30th anniversary this November. Tenner says the company plans to celebrate by restoring multiple fan favorites to its menu, including a pasta dish called “Chicken Domani,” which features gemelli pasta sautéed with spinach and asiago cheese in a white wine sauce. The 30th birthday celebration includes a separate specials menu that will be featured through the end of the year.

Bertucci’s customers voted on many of the featured dishes. They include a Formagio Pizza, Eggplant Napoleone, Cannelloni Bolognese and a trio of small desserts. The celebration also will include a raffle to win a trip to Italy for a few lucky guests.

“As we move into 2012, we’re excited [for the] launch of our new menu which will introduce great new salads and appetizers,” he says.

“It really [gives us the chance for] refreshing other parts of the menu,” he adds. “Our approach will be to bring some new, bright flavors to these sections. [We will be] creating dishes that are handcrafted, fun and great for sharing. I think our menu will continue to evolve [with] bright fresh flavors and create a festive, celebratory atmosphere for our guests.

“The goal is to create that local pizzeria/Italian restaurant feel, wherever we do business,” Tenner says, “and we’ll continue to have slow, steady growth. After doing business for 30 years, Bertucci’s has found its greatest successes in the communities where it can really dig in and become part of the fabric of the community.”