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DINING

Giusto in Newport is a homecoming and a new beginning for former SRV co-owner

Kevin O’Donnell and his wife, Sarah, wanted to raise their baby son near their extended family. Then COVID-19 hit.

Kevin O’Donnell and his wife, Sarah, with their son, Ray, on the patio at Giusto.
Kevin O’Donnell and his wife, Sarah, with their son, Ray, on the patio at Giusto.Angel Tucker

After several years as a successful chef and restaurateur at SRV in Boston, Kevin O’Donnell has opened his new restaurant, Giusto, in what might at first seem like an unlikely location: Newport, R.I.

“My wife and I were looking at our lives thinking about where we wanted to be long term,” O’Donnell said. “It was home.”

O’Donnell and his wife, Sarah, who met in middle school in North Kingstown, R.I., wanted to raise their baby son, Ray, near their extended family.

They set plans in motion for Giusto — which in Italian means something similar to the phrase “just right” — earlier this year before the COVID-19 pandemic.

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When Ray was born last December, O’Donnell was still running Venetian-inspired SRV in the city’s South End with partners including co-chef Michael Lombardi. By February, O’Donnell had left his position as chef and co-owner at SRV, found a new house in Newport, and signed a lease on a restaurant space at the Hammetts Hotel, in the center of the city.

Before that, he had looked at spaces in Providence but ultimately settled on a location in Newport because of the city’s status as a popular tourist destination and his personal ties to it. (His father was born there.)

“There’s a feeling I get when I cross over the bridge [to Newport],” O’Donnell said. “It just makes me happy.”

A month later, his plans hit a speedbump when COVID-19 restrictions in both states forced restaurants to temporarily close their dining rooms. They were later allowed to re-open with reduced capacity and under new pandemic-related health guidelines.

“I knew how to open a restaurant, but not how to open a restaurant in a pandemic,” O’Donnell said. “That’s been the tough part.”

The Giusto interior.
The Giusto interior.Angel Tucker

Before beginning construction on the space in April, O’Donnell thought through every possible scenario and ultimately decided to continue with the project since “we were already so far into it and took on so much risk already,” he said.

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He was able to make some tweaks to the construction plans to make the 3,800-square-foot space safer in accordance with COVID-19 guidelines. They included adding more space between service stations and tables to accommodate easier social distancing and installing lexan, a type of clear polycarbonate, and plexiglass barriers at the bar.

A 100-seat, partially covered waterfront patio had already been in the works. As expected, given its prime location on Newport Harbor and the increased desirability of outdoor dining due to the pandemic, it has been popular since the restaurant opened in early September.

The Giusto patio.
The Giusto patio.Angel Tucker

O’Donnell, who studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales in Providence and spent time cooking in Italy and France, describes his lunch and dinner menus at Giusto as “freestyle Italian.”

Whereas he and Lombardi aimed to stay true to authentic Venetian cuisine at SRV — a James Beard Award semifinalist for best new restaurant in 2017 — Giusto’s menu is more loosely Italian-influenced, drawing inspiration from the country’s various regions, as well as Italian-American fare.

The menu includes a creative take on Rhode Island’s official state appetizer, calamari. O’Donnell dredges the squid in jet-black squid ink tempura batter, which makes the dish lighter in texture and dramatically dark hued. He also offers a Calabrian-style stuffed quahog, with chili, orange, and sun-dried tomato.

“If you had asked me two years ago if I’d ever put a stuffie on the menu, the answer would have been, definitely not,” O’Donnell said. “But then I was at SRV and in Boston. Here, we wanted to be able to cook food that is nostalgic to us and makes us feel happy.”

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The Giusto calamari.
The Giusto calamari.Angel Tucker

Handmade pasta, a draw at SRV, is a focal point at Giusto’s as well. The opening menu includes five preparations, including spaghetti with clams and chourico; ribbon-shaped mafaldine with green beans and chanterelle mushrooms; and rigatoni with pork sausage and black truffles.

Other highlights include octopus with eggplant sugo; striped bass with capers, lemon, and fennel; and a ribeye steak cooked in a cast iron pan.

“We didn’t want to open with a limited or scaled back menu because we are in a position where we have only one chance to open and make a first impression,” O’Donnell said.

After years of working in lockstep with co-chef Lombardi at SRV, O’Donnell is a solo chef-owner for the first time.

“I definitely miss him, and we have a lot of great memories together,” O’Donnell said. “Now, there’s a lot more pressure when I make a decision.”

At Giusto, he has help from Sarah, who plans to use her experience as a social worker to support the restaurant’s staff.

For assistance running the kitchen, O’Donnell hired Kyle Stamps as executive chef. They met more than 15 years ago while working entry-level kitchen jobs at Junction Pizzeria in Wickford, R.I. Stamps later took on chef roles at restaurants including The Mooring and 22 Bowen’s, in Newport.

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“He knows Newport really well, so he’s a very good sounding board,” O’Donnell said. “We don’t just want to cater to tourists but push boundaries a bit to become a place that Rhode Islanders love, too.”