At Christiano’s It’s Just Mangia! — JUST EAT!
By Anne Hunter
You might expect Christiano’s—located inside a strip-mall on Highway 98 between Highway 393 and Scenic Highway 30A—to be just another restaurant in the chain of food options for locals and vacationers that line the Gulf of Mexico. But when you step through the door of Chris and Rene Chirum’s Italian beach eatery, the vibe is more like a formal Michelin-starred restaurant in SoHo, Manhattan, meets the deep south soul of Alabama – all just a few miles from the beach.
Chef Chris, who trained at Johnson Wells Culinary School in Providence Rhode Island and cooked in fine dining French restaurants in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, before heading south to the kitchens of Sandestin, believes in good food. Everything at Christiano’s is made from scratch. “Some people are content with the Carrabba’s of the world, but not me.” Chirum believes that once people are presented with really good food they seek it out. “When I was a kid, about six-years old, my buddy used to come to the house. One day he asked, why is your mom’s spaghetti so good? I didn’t know until I went to his house and his mom made spaghetti for us. All she did was take Campbell’s Tomato Soup, boil it and pour it over spaghetti. Then, I understood.”
While Chirum credits his mother for developing his passion for good food, he credits his mother-in law for the inspiration to open Christiano’s and points to the framed photograph of a beautiful young woman who seems to be looking over Christiano’s, “She helped us open the place. She loved the ravioli and would come here all of the time and eat it.” Chirum continues, “I am a Yankee. My wife is southern, and her mama is really southern. So, her mama called me her Eye-talian Yankee Son-In-Law. My name is Chris but all of my wife’s brothers and sisters called me Christiano. They came up with the name of the restaurant.”
A match made in heaven, Chris met Rene at a Christmas Party. He was the Executive Chef at Elephant Walk Restaurant in Sandestin and she was a physician’s liaison for a hospital that was hosting a Christmas party at Chris’ restaurant. “ I met her then and she didn’t like me. Years down the road we went on a date and she didn’t care for me then either, but then I made soup for her on our second date and that was it. It was Zuppa Squisita that did it!”
The couple purchased the space that was once Guglielmo’s Italian Grill. “We have been in this location now for almost for seven years. Chris had opportunities to relocate to bigger and better things, but our parents were here and we wanted to have time for our children as a family – so we decided to stay,” says Rene.
The relaxed, upscale yet casual Italian eatery welcomes all guests, including those in tank tops and flip flops or suits and ties – and there is room for everyone – including a family room that seats 18 people. Rene says, “People come straight off the beach and also for anniversaries and fine dining.” A family of four can split a $20 pizza while a business executive can feast on Veal Marsala, Filet Mignon, or Rack of Lamb as a couple celebrating their anniversary in the corner, finishes the meal with homemade pie. “There is something for everyone.”
I stopped in for lunch with my friend Dr. Hillary Glenn and at chef’s recommendation, ordered the Pasta a la Louie, a signature lunch dish with rigatoni, marinara, meatballs and sausage. “My dad loves sauce, he grew up eating sauce. We had sauce every Sunday and my mom would cook rigatoni. He called them stove pipes. Friday’s we had fish,” Chef Chirum says. No surprise, it was excellent and I feel as though I have just discovered a secret treasure.
Christiano’s serves the kind of food that you think about in your quiet time, the kind of food that your taste buds take you back for. So, I went back – only to discover that an artist named Rosalie plays piano on Friday nights – classic oldies from 6:30pm to 8:30pm. “Rosalie also makes the coffee and amaretto cake, she painted our menu, and many of the murals and artwork around the walls,” explained Rene, before looking lovingly Chris, “I think everyone was happy tonight.”
CHRISTIANO’S is owned by Chris and Rene Chirum and located at 4942 US Hwy 98 W, Santa Rosa Beach, FL. Lunch hours are 11pm-2pm and dinner from 5pm-9pm. For more information or to make reservations call (850) 267-2185 or visit www.meatballssrb.com.