Danny Meyer’s newest restaurant is a Roman-style trattoria in the Gramercy Hotel cheffed by Nick Anderer, formerly of Gramercy Tavern.
We caught up with Anderer about his connection to Rome, what it’s like to work for Danny Meyer, and why he thinks Roman cooking is masculine.
Check back here tomorrow for the second half of the interview, on Anderer’s earliest food memory, the kind of cooking he thinks is obnoxious, and the strangest request he’s ever gotten from a diner.
So you were at Gramercy Tavern before becoming executive chef at Maialino–how did you learn to cook Roman food?
Well it all started in college, before I was a professional cook. I did a study abroad program in art history through Trinity College, they have a Rome campus program. And it was actually the exact same program that Danny [Meyer] went on. I had no idea, until we started talking about Maialino.
I immersed myself in the Italian culture, language, and food. When I got back from that year abroad, in a small way I was always looking to get back into the kitchen, and into the Italian kitchen in particular. That was in 1997, a long time ago.
What was it that you loved about Roman cooking in particular?
Oh, this could take forever. I loved eating in Testaccio, there were a couple of restaurants there that I particularly liked: Checchino and Perilli. And I liked the way they used everything, true head-to-tail cooking: oxtails, beef cheeks, intestines. I love the aggressive flavors embodied in Roman cooking: Salty Pecorino, chiles, mint. The rich tomato sauces.
Roman food was close to my heart before I started cooking professionally. Since then I’ve worked in all kinds of kitchens, doing everything from more gentle, feminine food to more aggressive food. But I have an affinity for the way the Roman palate approaches the kitchen.
So would you say Roman cooking is masculine?
Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment. I think the tendency towards offal–there’s a certain machismo associated with saying I’m willing to eat anything. Of course, plenty of women do order the tripe, the carbonara. But it’s definitely an aggressive style of cooking.
How do you make the namesake dish, maialino al forno, roast suckling pig?
Do I have to tell you? [Laughs]
You don’t have to…
We slow roast it at a very low temperature for about five to seven hours, until the meat gets really soft and the skin slowly starts to brown. Then we chop it into sections and take each section to order, and blast it in a hot oven to crisp the skin. It’s rubbed with rosemary, cracked fennel, and salt and pepper. Very simple.
When we went, our suckling pig was the shoulder and a segment of the rib cage. Is that the cut that’s always served?
Yes, you’re always going to get a section of the rib cage. For the roast, we use the top three-fourths of the pig: the loin, belly, ribs and shoulder.
Then we use the hind legs for the pasta dish, malfatti al maialino. The legs are braised with celery, leek, chicken stock, and a little bit of lemon. The heads get stewed and we turn them into coppa Romana, basically a headcheese terrine. And the feet get slow-poached and then deep-fried, and served as a pig’s food salad with celery and bean salad. It’s a big antipasta.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
I don’t think you’re going to be able to pin me down. I’m excited about the pastas, particularly the malfatti al maialino [torn sheets of egg pasta with the pig and arugula]. I think it features the pig in a way that’s really seductive.
What’s the most popular dish in terms of what customers order the most?
I think the namesake dish has been one of the more popular dishes. And the classic Roman pastas: the all’amatriciana, the carbonara, the tonnarelli cacio e pepe–that one is often overlooked. It’s so simple, so stark, but so delicious. It really shows off handcrafted noodles, black pepper, and the cheese. Nailing those three components makes that dish sing.
Danny Meyer is one of the only restaurateurs who is perhaps better known than his chefs–do you like it that way or do you feel in his shadow?
I think I’m lucky. It shields me from a lot of unnecessary drama and allows me to concentrate on cooking. And I don’t have to fight for business. He’ll pack the doors every night, and at that point, it’s up to me to deliver. I think it’s a good thing.
You’re starting lunch on Wednesday, so what does lunch look like at Maialino?
It is very similar to dinner, you’ll see a lot of similar ingredients, similar dishes, but we’ve added extra salads, extra marinated fish dishes to accommodate a lighter style of eating. Roman food can be gutbusting at lunchtime. We have smaller format lunch dishes, a soup and sandwich list that doesn’t exist at night.