by Brian Harmon

Little Fabrizio Castelli stepped off the TWA plane at JFK Airport and saw smoke — coming from his mouth.

It was 1966, and the 7-year-old Italian boy had just flown from balmy Sicily with his mom and most of his 10 brothers and sisters into a chilly Christmastime afternoon in New York City.

“I actually saw the exhale of my breath. I had never seen that in my life. It was very impactful,” said Castelli, 59, the affable owner of Locale Gastro Bar and Pizzette on Main St. in Patchogue. “It was my greatest moment, getting off the TWA plane. I was wearing shorts, and I remember this refreshing cold air hitting me as I came off the plane.”

Nearly 52 years removed from that enlightening moment, Castelli treated me on a recent Wednesday afternoon to what quickly became one of my own greatest moments.

On a long oak table at the front of the restaurant he operates with his three adult children, Ariana, Francesco and Guiseppe, Castelli had his staff cook up just about every item on the menu.

That includes his favorite dish, Pollo Fabrizio,  an ample supply of the popular Castelli meatballs and each and every one of the restaurant’s popular pizzettes.

Castelli was pulling out all the stops for this interviewer and a group of food bloggers who were painstakingly shining bright lights upon and snapping photos of each dish.

“When you come into our restaurants, you’re coming into our house. Our restaurant is an extension of our homes,” said Castelli, who also owns Primo Priatto in Huntington. “We are going to be as hospitable as if you were walking into my home. I’m going to hug you. I’m going to say ‘Hi.’ I’m going to remember your name. I’m going to give you a drink. If I have food in front of me. I’m going to share it with you. This is who we are.”

Listening to Castelli, I was flushed with a warm memory of how well my college football teammate Dan DeAngelis’ mother Carmella would feed me Italian home cooked meals during my visits to their Niagara Falls, Ontario, home while I was at school in Buffalo. It was always all-you-can-eat pasta and meatballs.

These days, my diet is mostly vegan. But I learned that when a man with a thick Brooklyn accent tells me that “if you cut his veins, I bleed tomato sauce” and insists that you try his award-winning meatballs, my “I’m vegan” convictions take a hike.

I did indeed try the meatballs … and the spicy calamari, several pasta dishes and a tiny piece of Pollo Fabrizio. I drew the line at the veal saltimbocca. Because when you’re a wannabe vegan, you need to draw the line somewhere in order to sleep at night.

Patchogue’s big Italian Festival of St. Liberata is this Saturday, Sept. 8

No regrets. Every bite was delicious, even though a lot of it was lukewarm after the food bloggers finished twirling it, poking it and ogling it.

One thing I came to understand during this glorious summer afternoon on Main St. was that Locale’s tasty food is a century-and-a-half in the making.

When Castelli came to America with most of his family, his eldest brother Salvatore stayed behind to operate the family restaurant Pirandello in the Sicilian province of Agrigento. The eatery, now run by the late Salvatore Castelli’s children, has been open since long before the turn of the 20th century.

“We didn’t come to America and become restauranteurs. Our family was always in the restaurant business,” Fabrizio Castelli said.

“Right after World War II, my brother-in-law Luigi, who was married to my older sister, opened some of the first pizzerias in Brooklyn,” he said. “The GIs came back from Europe, and they were looking for pizzerias because they got introduced to them while being in the military. In 1954, Luigi opened a place on Avenue U in Brooklyn. This was our family’s first imprint in New York.”

Castelli said relatives opened another restaurant on Avenue U in 1966 and another near Prospect Park, Brooklyn, in 1967.

“We eventually had a chain of pizza restaurants from New York to Florida in the 1970s and 1980s,” Castelli said. “And we sold frozen pizza in many parts of the country during the 1970s and 1980s.”

When it comes to Locale, which opened 18 months ago, Castelli said the best is yet to come.

“I think we know what we’re doing,” he said with a smile. “It’s like everything else. Like a baby has to first crawl, then walk, and then run. This is still a new location, so we feel that that’s what’s going to happen.”

Castelli knows the family business in good hands with his children. Guiseppe’s culinary skills, Fransesco’s bolognese and pizzette-making talents and Ariana’s managerial expertise “bring us together as a whole,” the proud father said.

“Francesco brings his personality to his personalized pizzettes. Arianna’s personality enhances who we are and Guiseppe’s culinary skills bring our traditional home cooked meals to the next level,” Castelli added.

“I’ve always been around family. It is part of who I am. I’ve just instilled it in the next generation. They’re the flagbearers.”

Brian Harmon, a former New York Press Association Writer of the Year, was a reporter and assistant metro editor at the New York Daily News and an award-winning journalist at The Detroit News. He grew up in Patchogue and is the editorial director at St. Joseph’s College.