NEW YORK’S TOP “ROMAN” CHEF

 

Text ©2010

Photos ©2010 by Ellen Silverman

Maialino's Danny Meyer
Danny Meyer at Maialino

          Daniel (“Danny”) Meyer, born in St. Louis, Missouri, was raised there, in France (Paris and Bordeaux) and Italy (Rome) because his father owned a travel business.  During college Danny worked for his father as a tour guide in Rome and then returned to the Eternal City to study international politics, but he spent as much time in trattorias as in the classroom.

          Meyer’s first professional restaurant experience was in 1984 as an assistant manager at Pesca, an Italian seafood restaurant in New York’s Flatiron District.  A year later, at 27, he began his career as a restaurateur by opening the ever-popular Union Square Café.  Under his guidance as the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group he now owns ten restaurants in New York, six of which are in the Union Square area of Manhattan. His newest, a “neighborhood Roman trattoria” and his only Italian restaurant, Maialino opened on November 2, 2009 in the Gramercy Park Hotel (2 Lexington Avenue near 21 Street, tel. 212-777-2410 for reservations; www.maialinonyc.com) to rave reviews.

       Besides his restaurant locations, Danny Meyer certainly knows how to pick his executive chefs.  His restaurants, including Maialino, have produced a good share of mega-stars:  Michael Romano, Tom Colicchio, Marco Canora, Daniel Humm, Floyd Cardoz, and last but certainly not least Nick Anderer of Maialino fame.  It was not until Maialino’s planning stages that Meyer and Anderer discovered they shared a love of Rome, of art history which they both studied as undergraduates at Trinity College, Hartford’s Rome campus, and of Italian food.

          Born in South Bend, Indiana in 1978, but raised in New York City where his father of German-American descent is a professor of Japanese language and culture at Columbia University, Anderer comes with pedigree, having worked with Colicchio, Michael Anthony, Mario Batali, and Larry Forgione.  During her most recent trip to New York, where she was born and raised, Lucy Gordan, Epicurean-Traveler.com’s Rome Bureau Chief interviewed Anderer at Maialino and stayed for lunch. Her tasting menu included carciofini fritti, trippa alla trasteverina, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, bombolotti all’Amatriciana, malfatti al Maialino, pollo alla diavola, and bomboloni con crema accompanied by a 2009 Kerner from Abbazia di Novacella (from Alto Adige) and a 1999 Podere Rocche dei Manzoni Nebbiolo blend called Quatr Nas, (from Piemonte).

 

Executive-Chef-Nick-Anderer

Executive Chef Nick Anderer

Chef Nick Anderer

Our tastes in food are closely connected to our childhood; what are your first memories of

food?

NA: I guess it would have to be something my mother made. If I had to pinpoint particular dishes that stick in my mind, they would probably be mashed potatoes or creamed corn, which are still my favorite things to eat.  My mother usually served them with meat loaf. My brothers, one older and one younger than me, and I still ask for them on our birthday celebrations out of nostalgia. We all live in New York now.  My older brother is a brain surgeon and my younger one is the general manager of the “Breslin” right now.    

 

I read on the internet that you learned to cook from your mother.  What did she teach you and what are her specialties?

NA: From my mother I learned my appreciation for food and the joy of creating something with my own hands. That’s a lost art nowadays.  There’s something very ennobling about working with your own hands.  That started at an early age for me — just getting my hands dirty in the kitchen quite literally.  From her I also learned to appreciate the love and hard work that goes into making good food. I wouldn’t consider that meatloaf and mashed potatoes are my mother’s specialties.  That would certainly do her an injustice. She was actually my original inspiration for cooking Italian food.  She studied Italian cuisine; her teacher was from Bologna. We were spending a year abroad in Japan.  I was in the third grade.  One of my best friends was a kid named Michele and his mother gave Italian cooking classes.  That’s how my mother and I both got hooked on Italian food.  I’ve always had a voracious appetite.  I guess you can see that. 

 

Mailing's dining room
The dining room at Maialino

Your mentors are Larry Forgione, Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, and Mike Anthony. What did you learn from each of them? Did I overlook anyone else?

NA: No, those four are the big-name chefs that I worked for. They are all very different types of chefs. Larry Forgione is the first top chef that I worked for in New York.  He was famous for creating the “American” food movement and particularly for his restaurant The American Place. Working for him was important because not only was it my first job and the foundation for my fundamental basics in the kitchen, but it also taught me what it means to be a professional cook in America. Back then it was all about Europe, especially France and being trained by French chefs.  Forgione was very proud of being an American chef, using American ingredients, and pioneering a culinary movement.  There were no cuisines then that you could classify (at that moment at least) as American. For Larry it was a matter of pride and a philosophy to cook American food using only American ingredients. He is an Italian-American and his food reflected his origins in some small ways, but I’d say for the most part that he was trying to celebrate the foods of local markets and farms.  He was in my mind the first “farmer-chef.”  His movement has become very popular nowadays, but without preaching about it, that’s what Forgione achieved.

Bucatini-all'Amatriciana
Bucatini all’Amatriciana

       I worked for Mario Batali for several years, for about two years at “Babbo” mostly as a line cook at the pasta station.  That was an invaluable experience; it gave me the Italian culinary chops that I always felt I needed.  It was my formal Italian training. It was a great A to Z way to learn about Italian regional cuisine. His food is not particular to any one region. Although he has a lot of Emilia-Romagna influences from having worked there, his dishes go from north to south, from

Piemonte to Sicily; every region of Italy is represented on his menus. It was cool to be working for a then new restaurant with lots of young talented, go-getter chefs. All of us have moved onwards and upwards.  

       I began working for Tom Colicchio after my six months cooking in Milan. I was looking for something different; I wanted to shift gears a little bit.  I feel that the formation of any chef is all about challenging yourself from one job to the next and taking yourself out of your comfort zone so

that you can see more and learn more. I wanted to do something that was a little more French.  I know that Colicchio is an American chef and is proud of his American “new cuisine,” but I think that technique-wise, when I was in his kitchen at Gramercy Tavern, another of Danny Meyer’s nearby restaurants, it was a very French organized kitchen, had that same sort of brigade system.  There I transformed my rustic Italian sensibilities into a more refined, organized style. There I worked my way up from the bottom.  Everyone who worked at Gramercy Tavern then started as “the Tavern cook” working over a wood-burning grill and preparing less formal, more rustic food for the tavern or bar area.  After a stint there I moved into the kitchen and began at one of the lowest stations, the appetizer station, and from there moved my way up first to side-dishes and then to meats and fish.

       My stay at Gramercy Tavern, six years, was divided into two stages: one with Tom Colicchio and one with Mike Anthony, three years with each. It was a completely different restaurant when Mike Anthony took over.  A very challenging experience!  It showed me how you shift gears with a new chef, how a new chef can take an old team and teach it a new way of doing things. It was very impressive to see how smoothly Mike Anthony made that transition happen.  Mike Anthony had a much gentler, more simplified approach to cooking than Tom Colicchio.  Mike Anthony taught me how to let the ingredient be the ingredient and not mask it. He’s the master of taking the best produce at the market and turning it into a spectacular dish by doing very, very little.  He coaxes flavor out of vegetables in a way I’ve never seen another chef do. I was his Executive Sous-chef.

 

Vegetable antipasti at Azienda Fontansalsa, on Sicily
Antipasti bar, Maialino

What are the essential qualities of a top chef?

NA: For sure you need a combination of endurance and unwavering determination to get things done.  All great chefs have to possess an almost borderline fanatic stubbornness.  It’s especially true nowadays when we meet up with so much criticism and competition particularly here in New York City. If we let that get to us, if we listen to it too much and take the advice of whomever it might be, food writers, colleagues, then we lose focus on what it is we really set out to accomplish. The really good chefs here in New York City are the ones who really stick to their guns, who try to have a point of view and stick to it. All of us chefs have to face a lot of criticism as with any artist, whether a painter, a writer, a musician.  We have to face adversity and keep on going on our way.

 

Your only professional cooking experience in Italy was in Milan; why there and what did you learn?

NA: I’ll be 100% honest.  I wanted to go to Rome, where as you know I studied art history for a year at the same program that ironically Danny Meyer had attended.  I always wanted to go back to Rome so I kept saying to myself  “I’ve got to find a job cooking in Rome” so I went back but had no luck in cracking into any kitchen there, a difficult market to tap into.

       Luckily I found an opportunity through a friend in Milan — a brand new restaurant that was just opening and which specialized in traditional Milanese cuisine:  San Giorgio e il Drago.  It was exciting for me both because it was a brand new restaurant and because there are very few restaurants in Milan that serve traditional Milanese food.  Most people don’t even know what that is anymore.  It was very rice heavy, serving lots of different kinds of risotto, the speciality being riso al salto, a kind of thin rice pancake made with leftover risotto.  Again I was attracted by that same desire to challenge myself to do something different. “Fine,” I thought, “it’s not going to be Rome, but Milan kind of fell in my lap. So why not challenge myself to work in a region of Italy I’m not familiar with.”         

 

Maialino's Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Spaghetti alla Carbonara

What do you like best about your work?

NA: Right now?  It’s working with food and my team every day.  One thing that people from the outside looking in don’t realize is what a chef does on a daily basis.  It’s not just about one guy back there cooking and designing menus. It’s a team of people.  Talking to my cooks and my sous-chefs on a daily basis and coming up with new menu ideas is not a one-man act.  It’s a team effort.  I especially like the camaraderie; it makes my job worth doing. 

 

The least?

NA: The long hours. That’s probably a pretty common complaint that you’ve heard from many chefs. We do three meals here.  I’d like to spend more time with my wife Wendy, with my dog. I think it’s important for chefs to step back from the stove once in a while and realize that they don’t have to be in the kitchen 24/7. 

 

In a nutshell how would you define your cuisine?

NA: Rustic, soulful, full flavors, hearty, a simple but aggressive approach to Italian home-cooking. Not trying to mask the ingredients into something they’re not. Letting each ingredient sing for itself.  

 

Isn’t that what you learned from Mike Anthony?

NA: Yes, he was instrumental in showing me that.

 

What’s the origin of the name Maialino?

NA: That’s a funny story.  When Danny was in Rome working for his father, his co-workers referred to him as “Meyerlino” meaning little Meyer.  Then it became Maialino or “little pig” because of Danny’s love for food.

 

Tell me more about Danny Meyer.

NA: Danny is a master at making sure every member of his staffs at his several restaurants feels important. He creates a sense of family and cohesiveness and so inspires everyone to do the best job possible.  He taught me to create the “perfect” team. The fact that he is so well-known and people pack into his restaurants allows me to concentrate on my cooking.

 

Maialino-al-Forno
Maialino al Forno

As you’ve just said, Maialino means suckling pig and this restaurant serves “Roman cuisine;” is maialino your signature dish?

NA: A lot of people who come here want to eat maialino, but our menu is very diverse, like any trattoria’s, with several choices for antipasti, for primi, and for secondi.  Some people just come in for a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine.

          Concerning my own cooking I hesitate to use the term “signature dish” because there’s no one dish which defines who I am. Yes, maialino is the eponymous dish, yes, it’s the name of the restaurant, but I think the name of the restaurant is Danny Meyer’s homage to having grown up in Italy and to having the nickname “Meyerlino” later changed to “Maialino” because of his love of eating more than a reference to this particular central Italian dish.  Maialino is a great dish and I love to eat it.  So do lots of our guests because we run out of it almost every day. However, there are other dishes on our menu that are equally popular:  bucatini all’amatriciana, spaghetti alla carbonara, tonarelli al cacio pepe.  We’ve been getting tons of positive feedback about our raviolo all’uovo or egg ravioli.

          Breakfast is also a popular time to drop in. As you know Italians don’t eat beakfast, but New Yorkers do, so we had a lot of fun putting to our breakfast menu based on some of the egg-based dishes I’ve just mentioned. For example, we do baked eggs all’amatriciana and eggs cacio pepe, which is one of my favorites — a soft scramble with pecorino cheese and black pepper.  I love eggs and I love tonarelli cacio pepe.

 

Is maialino Danny Meyer’s favorite dish on your menu?

NA: I wouldn’t say so.  I mean he loves it obviously but, when he comes in to eat, it’s not what he chooses right away. I think his favorite dish is paccheri alla gricia.

 

What’s yours?

NA: The eggs cacio pepe and spaghetti alle vongole.  The simpler the better for me.

 

The public’s?

NA: Pappardelle allo maialino.

 

Roman cuisine includes many dishes or ingredients such as innards, guanciale, special artichokes, to name a few, that are illegal or just not available on the American market; how do you get around that?

NA: That’s a really good question.  I guess every chef, especially Italian chefs here in the city, has faced that dilemma. We deal with it on a case-to-case basis. For example, with guanciale we source it from an American producer in Iowa called “La Quercia.”  It’s an excellent product. Is it as good as the guanciale in Rome? Honestly no, but it does serve the purpose in flavoring our tomato sauces with that nice, robust, pig-cheek flavor. There are certain things that we can’t import:  guanciale, certain kinds of dried meats…, but right now there are a lot of great American producers of salumi that we source ours from:  Paul Bertolli’s Fra Mani is one.

     Our biggest problem was artichokes.  Since they are such a staple of Roman food, we had to have them on the menu. Since we couldn’t get the long-stemmed globe-shaped ones because they pick them much younger here, and even if they let them grow, they somehow never get that beautiful long stem like the Roman ones, to get around this, instead of doing Roman carciofi alla giudea, we do carciofini fritti, which basically have the same flavor. As for zucchini flowers, we have those growing in our roof garden here.

 

Maialino is very near “Eataly;” do you shop there?

NA: I’ve been in there once.  I’ve tried to go other times but there are very long lines to get in because there’s such a craze about it right now. It was a little overwhelming for me.  Nonetheless I think it’s an amazing idea — shop and eat.  I could spend days in there, but as a place where I shop regularly, no I don’t go there.

 

Do you ever go on buying trips to Rome to look for new products?

NA: Absolutely.  I’ve been there twice since we’ve opened to research new ideas for our menu.  I wouldn’t say that I bring any products back from Italy, because I play it by the book, but I go there for inspiration and to keep ourselves in check because it’s important to me that we stay as authentic as possible. That said, we’re in New York; we’re not in Rome so there are products we just won’t be able to serve. Occasionally we have to take some creative liberties.

 

Malfatti-al-Maialino
Malfatti al Maialino

When you do go to Rome, what do you always bring back in your suitcase?

NA: I always go to “Volpetti’s” deli in Testaccio just to bring back a few knick-knacks, but I travel pretty light. The last thing I remember bringing back was a “Pope opener,” a little statue of the Pope as the handle with a can-opener on the top.

 

On January 12, 2010 Florence Fabricant published an article in the New York Times about the rise of “Roman” restaurants in New York City; why do you think it’s the turn of Roman cuisine and not the cuisine of another Italian region?

NA: I don’t think that people are interested in Roman cooking because of its ubiquitous innards, because if so Maialino wouldn’t be as popular as it is, though we serve lots of tripe.  I think people are taken with Roman cuisine because it’s familiar to them.  Most Americans who’ve been to Italy have been to Rome. I also think that nowadays because of the recession and people wanting to eat more cheaply, the general public is seeking out food that’s comforting, soulful, and rustic. I think the idea of eating peasant cuisine, which I think Roman food really is, because it’s about using off-cuts of meats and finishing the leftovers, plus hardy pasta dishes that warm you up on a cold winter’s day, have made Roman food popular in New York at least.

 

There are hundreds of Italian restaurants and even numerous Roman restaurants in New York City; what makes Maialino different?

NA: We serve breakfast for one, which sets us apart. Another is our almost religious adherence towards tradition. That’s our philosophy. We try to document each ingredient and make every dish the traditional way. Some Italian chefs here in New York take many creative liberties; the result may be delicious but it isn’t the real dish as it would be cooked in Rome. Our warm hominess and our attention to detail and authenticity have and will continue to make us stand out.

 

For my Italian readers or well-traveled Italophiles what Italian restaurants in New York besides Maialino would you recommend?

NA: The carbonara at Lupa which, like us, sticks closely to tradition.  For higher end food, fine dining L’Artusi in the West Village and I think Michael White’s restaurants: Marea and Alto are outstanding.

 

Up to now we talked about Nick Anderer the chef; I’d like to know more about Nick Anderer himself.  For example, what are you favorite foods?

NA: Sushi.  It helps that my mother is Japanese-American.

 

A dish you don’t like?

NA: I eat just about everything.  My wife, who’s Korean, introduced me to a raw sea cucumber dish, which Koreans like to eat with a hot spicy sauce.  I can’t stomach it. I think a sea cucumber is in some way related to a clam, but it’s a gelatinous, fishy, iodine-flavored meat, that doesn’t appeal to me.

 

Your favorite wines?

NA: Despite the fact that I love Italian wines tremendously, if I had to die with one wine region, I’d have to go with Burgundy. La Táche is a wine I’d never buy because it’s so expensive.  I got to try it at Gramercy Tavern when two very wealthy guests sent me half a bottle to the kitchen as a “thank-you” for a great meal. 

 

Chefs are well-known for having collections, often of fast cars, motorcycles, or watches; what about you?

NA: Hats.  I wear baseball caps often. I’m a big sports fan.  My favorite team is the New York Jets, but I’m an everything fan —football, baseball, and basketball — the three all-American sports. I’m also a Yankee fan. 

Maialino_Pollo-alla-Diavola

Maialino Pollo alla Diavola

Your feelings about food critics and restaurant guides, have they been helpful to you or do they add stress?

NA: They’ve been great to Maialino so I can’t complain. They have a job to do which is to criticize food.  That’s why they got the name critic. So long as you’re a chef who doesn’t take these things personally, I think food writers can only do good things for you.  When the reviews come out, they usually only help your business — even a negative review unless it really pans you. Luckily, I’ve been on the positive side of most of my reviews. Reviews are definitely a source of stress for chefs; we definitely know when critics are in the house, so, when they come around, the challenge is just to be yourself.  The biggest mistake a chef can make when a critic comes in is to try and create a dish different from what he or she normally cooks. I never let reviews get to me in a way that would negatively influence my career. If a top chef lets bad reviews get to him or her, it’s time to stop cooking and change careers. Somebody is going to write something bad about you eventually; it’s inevitable.

 

Other chefs besides your mentors that you admire?

NA: All my peers who are getting out there and achieving great heights, especially Greg Marchand.  I worked with him at Gramercy Tavern.  He has a place in Paris called Frenchie. It’s a small restaurant, one of a kind, a one-man show. There should be more restaurants like this one. 

 

What are your favorite restaurants in Rome?

NA: Checchino dal 1887; Perilli; Felice, all in Testaccio, definitely many restaurants in Testaccio.  I also love Pierluigi on Piazza Ricci not far from Piazza Farnese and Campo de’ Fiori; I spent a couple of days in the kitchen there; it was one of the few places in Rome that welcomed me into their kitchen and let me steal some of their secrets.  Whenever I go back to Rome, I eat at Da Francesco just west of Piazza Navona.  It’s not the most tremendous food, but I just love its feeling, its atmosphere. It’s out of the past.

 

You studied art history at Columbia; do you have a favorite artist?

NA: Rembrandt.

 

You spent your junior year in Rome and your love of cooking blossomed there; do you remember an exact moment when you decided to switch careers?

NA: I’ve always been into food.  I’ve always loved eating. By the end of my year in Rome, I was cooking more for myself than I ever had before in my life.  It wasn’t one incident, it was a year-long process. Rome was the spark for my career as a chef.

         As soon as I got back to New York, I thought to myself: “How do I take this a step further?”  These feelings had been picking up a lot of momentum in Rome and I wanted to let them carry on in New York so in my senior year in 1997 at Columbia, I started working fulltime in restaurants. I had to beg the first chef at Buzzy O’Keefe’s Water Club to hire me because I had no experience then, but, after a month, I took-off. I was the pastry assistant there.

 

Is it your dream to open your own restaurant someday?  If so, will it be in New York and what cuisine will it feature?

NA: I would love to have my own restaurant someday. That’s something far from my mind right now because I feel Maialino is still a baby. I’m trying to do my best to make it the best restaurant it can possibly be. However, I certainly have aspirations to do things bigger for myself. There’s always room for personal improvement. Owning a restaurant has always been a dream of mine. I hope it will be a reality one day.  I would love it to be in New York.  The competitive spurt in me says I want it to be in New York because it’s such a restaurant town and there is so much competition here.  I’m a very competitive person and I like the fact that I’d have to compete with the other great restaurants in town.  I think that would make me an even better chef. The cuisine would definitely be Italian.

 

If they hadn’t become chefs Heinz Beck told me he had wanted to become a painter; Marchesi a pianist; Thomas Keller the shortstop for the New York Yankees; what about you?

NA: I’m too competitive and have too much energy to say I would have wanted to be any kind of artist. Probably a football player, a wide receiver for the Jets. No, actually I take that back.  I’d rather be a surfer. That’s one of my hobbies; I love body-boarding and surfing in Hawaii.  My wife and I love to take vacations in Hawaii about every other year.

 

Epilogue: To learn more about Danny Meyer read his autobiography: Setting the Table:  The Power of Hospitality in Restaurants, Business, and Life, (HarperCollins, 2006).

 

For Maialino recipe for Malfatti al Maialino Click Here

For Maialino recipe for Maialino Pollo alla Diavola Click Here

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