When Giuseppe Ruta met his future wife Marisa as teenagers in Ispica, Sicily in Italy, he was 17 and she 16 “and a half.”
At 18, Giuseppe, a culinary enthusiast who had worked in restaurants for most of his life, opened up a panini shop in Sicily with financing from Marisa’s father, only for it to close after a couple of months.
“I had no idea how to run a business, and no one was helping me, I didn’t have guidance,” Giuseppe recalled “I had a line out the door, but I was spending whatever came in.”
The couple soon married, with their first son born a few years after. After temporarily moving to Milan and spending time in areas of Germany, Giuseppe decided to take a chance and move the family to the United States in 1993.
“My father used to live in New York, so I convinced him to make some room for me,” Giuseppe said with a laugh. “When I came here, I had $200 in my pocket.”
He spent months working as a busboy at King Umberto in Elmont, learning English, working until 2:00 a.m. and riding a bike to work, with Marisa and their son arriving a month after he started his job and began working his way through the ranks.
“I used to take classes on wines in the city on my day off,” Giuseppe said. “I wanted to do more, I wanted to learn and upgrade my situation.”
The family then moved to Manhattan, where Giuseppe worked for restaurants in various neighborhoods including SoHo, and eventually made enough money to buy a home in Franklin Square. But something wasn’t sitting right with Giuseppe.
“I went to my wife and said that something wasn’t clicking with me,” Giuseppe said. “I wasn’t professionally satisfied.”
Giuseppe felt a need to run his own restaurant, and began the process by looking for spaces on Long Island, instead of high-rent Manhattan.
“You never find the perfect place, you have to create your own place,” Giuseppe said.
After some searching, the Rutas found a less-than-ideal but still cozy spot on Northern Boulevard in Garden City South. Initially, the first storefront could only fit 18 patrons, and Giuseppe opted to stick with panini and salads for a simple, yet do-able menu. As his head chef, he hired the best person he knew – his wife, Marisa.
A longtime home cook who learned traditional Sicilian cuisine from her mother, Marisa, then herself a mother of three, took the job for no pay. The Rutas signed their lease in January of 2003 and opened the doors of La Bottega in March.
“We opened up and we just had a few shelves, three tables, a small kitchen and one bathroom,” Marisa said. “We had to go to P.C. Richard’s for a stove!”
Each morning, Giuseppe would shop for produce in the early hours before coming back to attend to the breakfast, lunch and dinner rushes with Marisa. The first few weeks were touch and go.
“The only thing we really knew how to do was serve the customers and cook food,” Giuseppe said.
“We wanted to bring quality to the neighbors and something new,” Marisa added. “Nobody at the time knew what panini was, and here was Giuseppe bringing it in.”
Within a few months, La Bottega gathered a dedicated customer base, and the tiny storefront would see lines out the door and around the corner, according to Marisa. They decided to expand.
La Bottega now has 12 locations, some franchised, including one in Roslyn that Giuseppe and Marisa opened themselves in 2009.
“I always liked Roslyn,” Giuseppe said. “There used to be a deli in this spot, and an Italian landlord I knew came to me and said, ‘Giuseppe, I have this location,’ so I went and took a look at it.”
After some interior redesign and a fresh coat of paint, Roslyn had a La Bottega of its own, and it has been open for a decade.
The Rutas, who now make their home in Garden City, also say that their introduction of panini into cuisine on Long Island caused a spike of imitators, but that patrons know who did it first.
“The original is always the original,” Marisa said. “People may copy you, but customers think of the original first.”