This feature is part of a The Daily News series where we explore the diversity of local chefs in Onslow County called “A Taste of Onslow.”
It’s been seven years since Chef Steven Bidwell moved from New Jersey to Swansboro with his wife of 32 years, and he’s now the executive chef of an authentic Italian restaurant in Onslow County – il Cigno Italiano.
Bidwell started out in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher about 40 years ago, at the age of 18. He said he spent several summers in a row washing dishes at a restaurant called The Mad Mackerel, where he eventually worked his way up to becoming the chef.
However, once he became more serious about cooking, Bidwell said he started working at an Italian restaurant in New Brunswick called Panico’s.
The owners of Panico’s eventually opened a second restaurant, where Bidwell worked as a chef in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, it eventually changed ownership, so Bidwell began working at a little Italian place that opened in what was essentially a converted root beer stand, Bidwell explained.
The owners of that restaurant also opened a second place called Cafe Abbraci in Metuchen, New Jersey. Bidwell began splitting his days working as head chef for both restaurants.
When the owners eventually parted ways, Bidwell stuck with Cafe Abbraci. He said he and the owner also started a wholesale dessert company in the mid-90s while simultaneously running the restaurant.
After an attempt to open and run an Italian restaurant with a long-time friend in the early 2000s, Bidwell then spent the next two-three years at Mirabella Cafe, located in Cherry Hill, before leaving to work at Catering by Vitarelli’s, a restaurant and catering company where Bidwell spent the next six years.
That’s when he and his wife finally made the move to eastern North Carolina in October of 2015.
“After the kids were grown up and out of the house, we came down here because this is what the wife always wanted, something along the water, small town type of thing,” Bidwell said.
After moving to the area, Bidwell took over The Icehouse Waterfront Restaurant for nearly three years, until Hurricane Florence came along and essentially destroyed it. The owner, who also owns The Boro Restaurant & Bar, then decided he wanted to do seafood boils and worked with Bidwell to open Swansboro’s Low Country Kitchen.
Then, in 2021, the same owner partnered with Bidwell to open il Cigno Italiano.
“There really aren’t any, what I consider, authentic Italian restaurants in the area,” Bidwell said about what makes il Cigno Italiano special. “We still get people who are expecting an Olive Garden type of food and that’s not us. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we just try and do our own thing, a little bit differently, a little bit better. Not to sound egotistical or anything, I’m just proud that we try to find really good ingredients.”
Bidwell said that when done right, Italian food doesn’t have to be fancy. He said it has its roots in “peasant-type food,” adding it’s very simple but has good ingredients.
He added he doesn’t like flare.
“I’m a very down-to-earth, keep it simple, taste good, person,” Bidwell said. “Too many people worry about unnecessary things. Bottom line – is it a yummy dish going out to a table?”
Bidwell created the entire il Cigno Italiano menu, and he said some dishes he’s been doing for years, taking them from place to place because people like them. Why mess with success, Bidwell asked.
il Cigno Italiano offers everything from pappardelle bolognese to seafood manicotti and gnocchi pomodoro. Bidwell said they make a lot of their pasta in-house, including the gnocchi, and they even make fresh mozzarella every single day.
“I’ve been lucky, unlike most places, the people I have here,” Bidwell said. “I’ve got a great team, mature. I’ve got one kid and he’s a hustler, always asking questions and learning.”
Bidwell added that sick, dead or dying, his staff shows up. He said he really appreciates the owner too, who even during slow periods of the year, doesn’t cut his staff’s hours.
So, what does the future look like for Bidwell? He said he and his wife aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. He said they’re currently looking for their forever home in Swansboro.
They have two adult sons, one who manages a restaurant in Jacksonville and the other who lives in New Jersey. In his free time, which is really only on Tuesdays when il Cigno Italiano is closed, Bidwell said he just likes to relax. He emphasized how important it is for him to keep work and home life separate, which he thinks is one of the reasons he’s been able to go on for so long.
“I’m trying to forget how old I am,” Bidwell said. “I think I can keep doing this for quite a few more years, until I can’t physically do it. I’m sure I have a few good years left in me.”
il Cigno Italiano is open Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. For more information, visit the restaurant online, on Facebook or call 910-325-7845.
Reporter Morgan Starling can be reached at email@example.com.