Wanderer: Story of a modern day URI chef

From Dallas, Texas to New York City, from 5-star hotels to private celebrity yachts there lies a traveler, a visionary and, most importantly, a chef. Tracey Altomari has been cooking since she was 12 years old and traveling around the world for decades.

The Johnson and Wales culinary school graduate has been cooking for celebrities, infusing flavors in 5-star, 5-diamond hotels and creating delectable dishes in upscale restaurants. She had also been tasked with cooking for the former president of the Citadel Military College of South Carolina, Lieutenant Claudius E. Watts III.

Although this experienced chef has been right under students’ noses for the past 12 years,  Altomari has been a hidden gem of the University of Rhode Island Dining Services, and most recently the face of Astro’s Grill in Mainfare dining hall.

“I had never worked in a school before, never. I wanted to work in a university,” Altomari said. “I just wanted to see what it’s like to cook for up-and-coming young professionals. That’s exactly what I wanted to do.”

Altomari started working at the deli where she became famous for her daily wrap specials. She eventually moved on to Homestyle grill, where she described it as a ‘fun-hard’ experience that helped define her.

“My mother always said, you make people happy and relaxed when you feed them well,” Altomari said.

Altomari knew she wanted to be a cook since she was in the third grade. Her mother was her number one inspiration. Altomari recalled a time in her childhood that fueled her passion for wanting to be a chef.

“My dad worked really really hard, when he would come home he would have a real tough day at the office and my mother worked as well, but she would still make sure we had a fresh salad, a protein, a starch and a vegetable seven days a week,” Altomari recalled. “My dad would come home from work and you can tell don’t talk to him unless he’s had his first bite of food and then everything was wonderful in the house. And that was my earliest memory.”

Altomari said that she owes much of her success and inspiration to the many staff and co-workers in Dining Services, including Personal Cook Keith Mancini. Mancini became Altomari’s main inspiration, aside from her mother, in her cooking life. Mancini encouraged Altomari to keep her food creativity and influenced her to eventually go run Astro’s grill.

The current new development for Astro’s grill under Altomari now includes coming up with healthier options for students. Altomari is dedicated to making healthier alternatives for health-conscious students. This begins with making sandwiches and spreads that cut down on the carbs and on the fats. Recently she’s been making specials that experiment with different breads, and even sometimes no bread and starting to cut down on fats. She is using healthy alternative fats like that found in avocados.

Altomari is also working on using fresh vegetables and ingredients to make special sandwiches and healthier sauces. For instance, one of her most popular specials was a roasted vegetable quinoa quesadilla on a corn tortilla.

Altomari said that she owes special thanks to Michael McCullough, Steve Mello and Thomas Essex for ordering her the ingredients that she needs to be able to keep making the specials, sauces and other creative ideas come to life. Mello also invites Altomari to go to food shows so she can keep up with the local and seasonal trends.

“I don’t just want to be in cheeseburgers and dogs,” Altomari said. “My brain has like 5 billion different recipes in it, I’m just full of them. My brain just never stops until I put my head on my pillow.”