Peter Tartsinis grew up in a restaurant. He scrubbed floors, washed down tables and took out the trash.
As a boy in his parents' restaurant in Colchester, Conn. in the 1970s, Tartsinis learned something about cooking as well. As the executive chef at Blue on Highland for the last four years, he's been taking his talents to the kitchen every day.
Blue on Highland is classy. In the summer, the big windows that line Highland Avenue (across from the Needham Heights commuter rail stop) stay open and the atmosphere within is always a lively one. Regulars from the neighborhood head to Blue to meet for a midday drink, while businessmen sit at a corner booth for a lunchtime meeting. They all know they're in for a treat with Tartsinis at the helm.
The restaurant's style is technically modern American, he said—red meat, potatoes, veggies and sauces all cooked to tangy, succulent perfection—but Tartsinis' background is in seafood. In the 1980s, just after he attended Johnson & Wales, Tartsinis was a sous chef in a touristy seafood restaurant in Mystic, Conn. Blue's menu isn't very sea-faring, but still, this chef makes gourmet pizzas, veal and chicken scaloppinis, and the always difficult risotto (the recipe changes daily) look easy.
"We have a very good menu," he said. "We're trying to appeal to everybody. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel."
Tartsinis is partial to the duck breast entrée with green apple jus, brown rice and mache lettuce, but he loves a good piece of meat. When asked if he ever went vegetarian (even for a little while), he said, "No, you kidding?"
He's a modest chef. After all, Blue is a "classics" restaurant. The dinner entrees are all just above $20, except for the cheeseburger (which is only $13) and if the price seems lofty for a hunk of meat and some mashed potatoes, you'd gladly hand over your wallet after biting into the filet mignon with au poivre sauce.
Tartsinis, 40, said the idea behind Blue came from investors Catherine and Rod Walkey, who wanted to add to the flourishing restaurant scene but away from downtown Needham. Trastinis, along with managing partner Matt Sullivan, have made Blue into a Needham staple while operating outside of Needham Center.
"What they were hoping (here) when they opened Blue was a small idea of downtown," he said.
The restaurant shows no signs of slowing and Tartsinis, who is currently house hunting in the area with his wife Julie, who also works at the restaurant, is happy at his day job. He said he tries to get out on a golf course every once in a while, but running a restaurant such as Blue is everyday work. He credits his success to the simple things.
"We're very consistent at keeping the food at a high level," he said.
Aside from the food, though, it's the atmosphere and camaraderie that bring people back, he said.
"People almost get a sense that they belong here, that everyone knows them here and that pretty much whoever works here is going to know there name or say, 'Hi,'" he said.