Belgian-born chef Mathieu Palombino’s culinary roots are in classic French cuisine. He was the chef de cuisine at BLT Fish when the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star, and three stars in the New York Times. But he harbored a secret passion for Neapolitan pizza, and left fine dining to open Motorino, a wood-oven pizza place that has earned a rabid following.
This week, he opened a second Motorino in the East Village, in the old Una Pizza Napoletana space. Last night, there was a line out the door, but the wait for to-go pizzas was only about 15 minutes. (And they were beautiful.)
We caught up with him for a chat.
It seems like you have a really good thing going on in Williamsburg. Why expand across the river?
Well, I always had the hope of expanding one day. I never thought it would come so fast, but when I heard Una Pizza Napoletana was for sale–this spot and this location, the set up is so good, there’s already an oven. It’s one of those things. You go for it. I knew I had to move on, so I bought it right away.
Do you have different goals for the two restaurants?
No, both restaurants specialize in Neapolitan style pizza. The Motorino in Manhattan is much more restricted by size. Basically the venue is much smaller than in Brooklyn. There, we have artisanal cheese, salumi, specials, special desserts…We cannot have that here in Manhattan. But by being limited in size, we actually get closer to the original idea of what a Neapolitan pizzeria is, which is very very simple.
I don’t have too much room, so I have to be able do everything in a comfortable manner. It’s so small, but the simplicity of it creates its own charm. It wouldn’t make sense for such a tiny pizzeria to offer wide array of pizzas. That’s why Anthony [owner of Una Pizza Napoletana] was doing very small, and I do the same.
Here we have some antipasti, the pizzas, and soft serve.
Why the soft serve?
Because I like it a lot. And also it’s very practical. The machine is so good. It’s such a good product. It’s been churned the minute before you eat it.
Will you stick with chocolate and vanilla, or will you change the flavors?
I like the chocolate and vanilla the most. I have to see, and make my selections, but those are my two favorite ones–you can also get them combined together. I just like vanilla and chocolate, so I’m not very fun on this. I tried a green apple soft serve that was horrible, and sour cherry that was barely edible.
Have you had any former customers of Una Pizza Napoletana come in?
Yes, and the ones who came to see me said they loved it. We [he and Anthony, of Una Pizza Napoletana] are both very respectful of tradition. They way he prefers to do dough, and the way I do, it’s a matter of personality, but the product is the same. It’s comparing apple to apple.
Are there particular ways that your dough differs from Anthony’s?
It’s very similar. There’s not so much variation that can be brought to a dough recipe. One baker might prefer it a little wet or a little less wet to accomplish the project, depending on structure needed for the bread. But a dough is a dough, although the final touches are very personal.
Me, I like a very well-fermented dough, and to me the perfect pizza has char–not burned–but I like rustic, and for the pizza to have this rustic character. Very airy, light structure, big bubbles and nice char: This is just the way I like it, and the way I believe in it.
How has it been, working with an unfamiliar oven?
Now I know what a good oven is. This one is very forgiving. Like a good car, it’s very easy to drive. The one I have in Brooklyn is much more temperamental, much more difficult to keep at the same range. This oven is very, very friendly. It makes a nice pizza. The temperature of the stone is always in balance with the temperature of the inside of the oven, so that the pizza is cooked on the top and bottom in the same time. It’s not raw on top and burned on the bottom.
It was imported from Italy, right?
It was made in Napoli and imported from there. There are only a few in this country. It’s a very expensive oven, especially once you go there and bring it back, and everyone has robbed you, from Napoli to here! It ends up being an expensive oven!
But worth it?
Yeah, it’s worth it. What price, though, I don’t know. He told me $40,000. I think it’s $20,000.
Do you still make your own mozzarella?
No, I’m no longer doing it. Here in Manhattan we didn’t have room anyway, and we’re doing strictly imported buffalo mozzarella.
Honestly, I found a guy making fiore de latte better than mine, and I just had to admit it.
Who do you buy it from?
I’d rather not say. But yeah, now I buy it. I realized what was the real truth behind the mozzarella. People think it’s good to do it yourself, but you can only do it from the curd. Instead, you have to get it from a guy who does it from the milk, not the curd.
Curd is made in mass quantities in a factory, so the little guy can buy it, remix it and say they make their own fiore de latte. It’s kind of true, but it’s not the real mozzarella, the way it should be. Curd is an American invention. It’s easier for transport. The real fiore de latte is made from milk to ball, in one application, not this quality-killing process that curd is.
Click through to find out what Mathieu thinks about New York’s current pizza obsession.
What do you make of the all the attention paid to pizza recently? The fetishization of it?
I have to be careful right now. I am very honored. That is one thing. That people respond to what I am trying to do, which is to make the best of the best. I enjoy that a lot. How do I react to the press? I’m honored, I don’t know what else to say.
Well, do you think that some people make too much of certain places? Are some places overrated?
My generation, me and you, and all the folks our age, are really paying a lot of attention to what they eat. They like authenticity, and I think it’s really great. I think that some people have been riding on a reputation that has been built over a century ago, and what is left of it is not much.
I like the history of things, and I like to go to Frank Pepe, yes. I love the guy, I love the pictures–the proud immigrant, the guy in a bow tie. But there’s nothing left of that at all, but still, there is a line.
There are guys in New York who are so on top of what they do, doing amazing stuff. Co., I love this restaurant so much. This guy [Jim Lahey] is just not faking it. These are the real food people, this is where you’ve got to go and eat, I think. To him, there’s nothing more important in the universe than his pizza. It’s like me, how I work, there are some people who might think I go overboard, but…
He’s [Lahey] is a real restaurateur. At Frank Pepe, the owner is far, far, far away from there. The guy making the pizza doesn’t care and it shows. But I don’t want to denigrate anybody. Don’t make me sound like I’ve been throwing stones! [Laughs.] I don’t want that limo parking in front of my store, and the guy in the salt and pepper haircut asking, “Who were you referring to?”
I think you sound fine.
That’s okay. I’m not impressed anyway.
Where do you go for a greasy, New York-style slice?
Rosario in the East Village is good. And Joe’s Pizza at Bleecker. I love it–they sell so fast that the pizza is always right out of oven. Always buy two slices, because one is not enough, and then you have to wait on line to get the other one. So that’s my advice.
And I know classic French cuisine is what you were trained in, so where do you go for classic French?
Classic French is my love, my culture. I was raised by a French mom right on the French border, so that’s what I grew up on. French food is so satisfying, and so good. Balthazar is a sure bet for me. Those guys are so on top, they are more French than the French. You can go anywhere in France and never find as good a French brasserie as this. And I like the steak au poivre at Raoul’s.
It’s actually a little bit sad that French cuisine has been left to the side. It’s become out of fashion, I guess, and I don’t know why. It’s such a monument of culture. Whoever likes food must acknowledge that.
Do you like old-school places like Tout va Bien?
When I first arrived, and spoke no English, I used to go there because the waitress speaks French. It’s good that it’s still there. You appreciate it because you don’t know when it will disappear. And the decor is amazing. It’s actually the style I decorated my apartment.
No! [Laughing.] It’s like Christmas everyday in there with all those lights strung up!