LARCHMONT, N.Y. – At just 28 years old, Yorktown native Nick Di Bona had worked his way up from bus boy to head chef at Peter Pratt’s Inn, appeared on a nationally televised cooking show, and opened his own New York Times-reviewed restaurant in Larchmont. However, the enterprising 2003 Yorktown High School graduate was not satisfied with his accomplishments. In fact, it was the latter accomplishment that started him thinking about his next venture.
At the conclusion of Madison Kitchen’s “Very Good” review (a 4 out of 5 by more traditional metrics) in December 2013, writer Alice Gabriel said Di Bona’s homemade ice creams were so good, he should “consider packing in pints to go.”
“When I saw that, my brain went crazy,” Di Bona said. “I said, you know what, I’ve gotta do something with this.”
Bona Bona Ice Cream began modestly, with Di Bona first selling it at the Larchmont Farmers Market out of an ice cream cart.
“We just started packing ice cream in pints and it just started working,” Di Bona said. “It blew up.”
Soon, country clubs and restaurants began calling, requesting Bona Bona Ice Cream on their menu. During this time, Di Bona said, he was driving “like a maniac” all over Westchester to personally make the deliveries.
“I soon realized that wasn’t the route to take because all my time is being wasted driving around in Westchester traffic,” Di Bona said. “I wasn’t making money doing that.”
In order to grow the business, Di Bona was forced to take a step back. Only a handful of restaurants now carry the ice cream, including his own Madison Kitchen in Larchmont and Fortina restaurants in Armonk, Rye Brook and Stamford, Conn.
Now, with a new ice cream truck, Bona Bona Ice Cream is ready to hit the road this summer. He has not decided where the truck will be located during the week, but on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day, he will be at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn. The weekend festival (Saturdays in Williamsburg and Sundays in Prospect Park) showcases 100 regional food vendors and boasts about 10,000 visitors per day.
Bona Bona Ice Cream is made fresh in the basement of Madison Kitchen. Flavors are always changing, but mainstays include rainbow cookie, Nutella s’mores and backyard mint chip. For Easter, Di Bona produced special Peeps- and Cadbury Cream Egg-flavored ice creams.
Madison Kitchen, located on Madison Avenue in Larchmont, was launched by Di Bona in 2013, after 12 years working at Peter Pratt’s Inn in Yorktown. Beginning as a bus boy at 15 years old, Di Bona said his love of cooking developed watching trained chefs up close and personal.
After high school, Di Bona attended Culinary Institute of America while working in the kitchen at Peter Pratt’s, which is less than a mile from the Countryside development in which he grew up. After graduating, he was promoted to chef for about four years. He praised John Pratt, owner of Peter Pratt’s Inn, for supporting him and his career.
“He’s like a father/brother/friend,” Di Bona said. “It’s hard to find someone who gets you.”
Despite Pratt’s being a second home, Di Bona always thought about going out on his own. He achieved his ultimate goal four years ago with the opening of Madison Kitchen. Running a business, Di Bona said, “Is honestly the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life.”
“It’s actually not fun most of the time,” he said with a laugh.
Despite winning an episode of “Chopped” on the Food Network, a positive New York Times review and a steady stream of customers, Di Bona said he found himself getting “bored” with the traditional restaurant experience. After patronizing tapas restaurants in the area, Di Bona knew what he had to do to spice up his Madison Kitchen.
“I think it’s the most fun way to eat ever,” Di Bona said of tapas restaurants, which typically serve many small plates that can be shared among the dinner party. “One day I just came in and I bought a whole bunch of new plates and I got my manager and we changed the menu and everyone thought I was crazy.”
Di Bona describes his menu as “new American” (visit mklarchmont.com).
“The menu changes seasonal,” he said. “We just put a bunch of spring things on. We’re always looking.”
Di Bona said he finds inspiration on the internet and in old cookbooks. This spring, he is traveling to Greece, Italy and Spain, and says he will surely return with some more menu ideas.
“When I come back, I feel bad for my staff,” he said.
Despite all he’s accomplished for his age, Di Bona said he still has a long way to go.
“I’m not there yet,” he said. “I hope to be there one day.”
Eventually, Di Bona said, he may slow down with the fast-paced restaurant business (he pays himself only $500 a week) and make Bona Bona Ice Cream his primary focus. He envisions Bona Bona becoming “Mister Softee meets a really cool brewery.” Except, this brewery would service ice cream instead of beer: “A creamery but the same vibe as a brewery,” he said.
“Honestly, I’m still in the beginning stages,” he continued. “The restaurant just got approved for outdoor seating. We’re busy every night, thank God. We’ll see what happens. Honestly, cooking is always a passion that’s never going to go away, but the ice cream, for me, it feels like I can have a better life as opposed to the restaurant.”
None of it, of course, could be accomplished without his “great staff.”
“I have really awesome people that want to work with me, somehow, some way,” he said. “I just could not do it without them.”