The Pines chef Angelo Romano had no intention of learning about cooking, but the knowledge was instilled in him anyway. The Florida native grew up with an Italian mother and grandmother who spent their days in the kitchen. “I was going to school with caponata sandwich or pig’s foot rigatoni in a Ziploc,” he recalls. “I was learning by exposure, and sometimes that’s better.”
As an adult, Romano first dabbled in advertising, ultimately giving it up because he realized he didn’t want to sell things he didn’t believe in. He followed a friend to San Francisco for a couple of years, where he “regrouped, snacked a lot, and went to Tartine and ate baguette all the time.”
When he resurfaced, he headed to the Culinary Institute of America and then came out to New York, where he first landed a job at a catering kitchen. “I was working with eight grown men who hated food and cooking,” he recalls. “I realized I never wanted to cater a 600-person party.”
He made a swift exit and took a position at Lupa, where he spent a considerable amount of time. Eventually, though, he got bored. “At that volume, food loses a lot of passion,” he explains. “That’s just the way it is. There are people cooking your food–it’s not robots.”
So he jumped ship, and after spending some time on the line at Roberta’s, he opened Masten Lake in Williamsburg. When that project went south just seven months after it debuted, Romano learned about the danger of working with the wrong investors, and he meditated on bringing in the right people for another project. He found them: “The people I found, we have a marriage,” he says. “I could see us working together for a long time. They believe in me despite our arguments. They embrace what we do, and they stood behind every decision I made.”
And with their support, he put together the Pines in Gowanus, an ambitious seasonally focused project that he opened in fall 2012.
In our interview, Romano weighs in on running his kitchen like a pirate ship, cooking with emotion, and his passionate hatred of okra.
Up next, Romano talks about running his kitchen like a pirate ship.
Describe your culinary style.
Kooky Italian with influences from everywhere. I judge a culinary form by a use of starch, and ours is pasta. It’s about as un-Italian as Italian can be, but I call it Italian because of the starch form.
Describe how you run your kitchen.
Like a pirate ship: very loosely. I trust the staff up until they’re out of their realm. I let the
guys approach me with ideas; there’s no set mold. I have one rule, though: no cannelles. It takes too long, it’s frustrating to watch someone do it, and it’s hard to put them on a plate.
How do you develop your recipes and menu?
By initial product. We take one product and balance or heighten it with three other ingredients. We have a strong focus on seasonality, especially now. Winter is different–I preserve a ton of stuff. Cooking locally is really rad, but there’s four months where there isn’t shit growing, so we get it from elsewhere. We’re still giving money to farmers. We’re still helping a small-production farm. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, except maybe fossil fuel use. We don’t limit where we source product from. It’s not 16 crates of soybeans shipped from Monsanto, it’s melons from Santa Monica from a farmer who does really awesome melons.
Who or what inspires you?
Emotions. Cooking is very emotionally fueled, and it’s more about the environment than any one person. It’s a very loving and tender process. When your mom cooks and she’s upset with you, the food’s not as good. It’s not a frat house or shitshow in my kitchen, but we don’t take it too seriously, and the food tastes better.
What chefs or food people do you most admire?
Cesar Ramirez [of Brooklyn Fare] does phenomenal things. Mark Ladner [of Del Posto] is a phenomenal chef. In my generation, I don’t necessarily admire anyone–I’m friends with them. I admire that they do things continuously every single day.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes?
We don’t keep anything on for that long, so the feedback comes from us tasting it over and over again. That’s such a good thing, because we can run it in an informal and comforting way. I put a dish on and keep tasting and tasting, and I never put something on a menu if I don’t think it’s of the right level. Things change, though. You eat things for two days, and they change. You’re naturally going to get tired of something that’s perfect, especially when it’s too perfect and that’s all you’re doing all day.
What brand of knife do you use and why?
I have really awesome Gyuto that Carlo Mirarchi got me. But I’m more partial to my tweezers.
On the next page, Romano talks about a food he hates with a passion.
Are you partial to any of your spoons?
A lot of the guys I work with are–like, one line cook has a set of antique spoons. I’m happier having an abundance. I’d rather have 400 teaspoons than spoons you need to hold onto.
What’s the most underrated kitchen tool?
The cake tester. It’s a fucking metal stick, but the uses are infinite. It’s the best thing to test internal temperature unless you have an internal probe thermometer, which you’re not going to have on the line. I trust squeezing a piece of meat, but you still don’t know the temperature. The offset palette knife, too, but the cake tester is the thing I’m constantly holding in the kitchen. It’s also the easiest thing to lose. You can only get so mad at someone for losing something that’s 50 cents, but we seriously lose one every three days
Favorite item in your pantry or walk-in?
Black vinegar. Yuzukoshō [Japanese seasoning made from chile peppers, yuzu peel, and salt]. Our kimchee that we make in-house. Dry-aged duck. Sriracha’s always a good fallback. We move stuff through so quickly.
What’s the most underrated ingredient?
Neutral oil. Some things always needs to be finished with olive oil or Tuscan oil, but when you’re putting it on a piece of fish or sea urchin, it’s almost as strong as the fish itself. Neutral oil creates viscosity and holds onto the flavor longer. It coats your tongue and gives you the right mouthfeel.
Is there a food you won’t eat?
Okra. I hate it with a passion. We had okra as garnish on our dry-aged duck breast. We usually sell them out, so this was one night only. It was the first time I didn’t want to taste a garnish.
Is there a special request you really dislike or won’t accommodate?
I accommodate everything. I surpassed that point long ago where you say it compromises your cooking. Ultimately, it’s the service industry. If you want to make whatever you want, throw a dinner party. It’s a big honor for people to come to Gowanus anyway. Saying no is crazy, and at brunch it’s even worse–you’ll spend 25 minutes at every table. So I tell the servers to say yes to everything, and we’ll figure it out.
Is there an ingredient you won’t work with?
No. The okra was a tough sell, but my sous chef went to the market, and he only brought in two pounds. I have three other guys in the kitchen that I trust, and it seems like I’m one of the only guys who doesn’t like okra. I also order a lot of stuff now so the guys can see it: duck tongue, milkwheat, flowers, and amazing foraged stuff. They’re learning, they get to mess around, and it keeps them excited. They’re learning through exposure.
Next, Romano talks about the three things he’d be happy to receive from grateful diners.
What do you hate seeing on menus?
Kale. I’m so over it. That’s it.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they sent to the kitchen?
Taco Bell, sour Skittles, or Fernet. In that order. When my friends from restaurants come in, it’s an unspoken thing that they bring a bottle in. It’s like, I have a bar here, we can drink from that. But we’re not staying after hours. Much as I love the place, I’ve been there for 15 hours, and I want to leave.
What’s next for New York restaurants?
Since the Cronut, I have no fucking idea. I’m excited to see what Danny does with Mission. Places like King Noodle and dinners like Chez Jose and Max Sussman’s Monkey Town dinner. I don’t know if pop-ups are sustainable for exposing your craft, but they’re interesting.
At what spot are you a regular?
Brooklyn Star. In the basement of No Name Bar, that Korean jam. I go there a lot after work. In this neighborhood [Williamsburg], there’s nowhere to eat after 2 a.m., so something gets better based on its business hours. I’m a creature of habit.
What’s the most underrated restaurant in New York City?
I don’t think Kajitsu has enough hype. That was one of the most thoughtful meals I’ve ever had. Bunker on Metropolitan and Flushing. The broth and pho was life-changing. It’s also BYOB, which is awesome. We ordered the entire menu, which usually puts a kitchen in shits. The curry with roti and creamed taro leaf were awesome. And the drinks were really good–they had this basil seed limeade. It was tapioca-like. You always know you found something cool when you leave and Google it, which I did.
Who’s the most underrated culinary figure in New York City?
Dave Arnold [of Booker and Dax] still takes the cake; he and Harold McGee are the two people I’m going to stop and listen to.
At what New York restaurant do you celebrate a special night out?
Mad for Chicken. It’s in a neighborhood that’s great to finish eating in and be in. It’s a big commitment for me to go to the city. It’s farther than I want to be from home. So I don’t just go by the restaurant–I go by the neighborhood.
Check this space tomorrow for part two of my interview with Angelo Romano.