Twenty years ago, when Donna Lennard opened Il Buco (47 Bond Street, 212-533-1932) on Bond Street, she wasn’t planning to become a restaurateur. Il Buco wasn’t even a restaurant then. Lennard was an independent filmmaker caught up in a romance with an Italian named Alberto Avalle, who wanted to export pieces of Americana to Europe. The pair had been collecting antiques from around the region when Lennard learned the artists at 47 Bond were planning to leave the address, which they were using as a studio, because rent was rising from $1,700 a month to $2,000. The couple signed their first 10-year lease, refitted the space, and began selling old radios, quilts, and furniture.
Soon, the partners — who eventually ended their courtship but remained in business together — secured a liquor license, and they began serving wine and beer plus greenmarket salads, Murray’s cheeses, and meats from a smokehouse in the Catskills to shoppers and neighbors looking for a place to hang out. Lennard and Avalle invited their landlords to lunch one day and laid out a plan to beef up the food offerings with a menu of tapas paired to drinks. The landlords gave their blessing, and Il Buco became a speakeasy restaurant. Three years later, it stopped selling antiques to focus on dining.
Slowly, the Americana theme fell away, and a collection of Mediterranean pieces filled the space. The hodgepodge of artifacts gave Il Buco a feel unlike any other restaurant in the city. One regular described it as awkward, says Lennard, and she agrees. “It’s not like a restaurant; it was never set up like a restaurant,” she says. “You get the feeling that you’re in someone’s home.” (And in some ways, you are — Lennard lives above the space with her husband and son.) It became known for its commitment to local sourcing, and for its charming Mediterranean menu that shifts with the season — and with the chef; there’ve been several heads of kitchen at this place, including Sara Jenkins of Porsena and Porchetta, Jody Williams of Buvette, and Ignacio Mattos of Estela.
Lennard still hadn’t embraced the restaurateur label when she opened Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria (53 Great Jones Street, 212-837-2622) four years ago, but she had spent the six years prior casually looking for a space where she could “complete the vision with baking our own bread and making our own salumi, which we wanted to be able to do it more easily,” she says. “We started looking for a way to get our product line out there better than out of a restaurant.” She also wanted room for a wine bar. The address on Great Jones came up after she’d turned down a number of other locations, and she knew, immediately, that it was right.
The owner partnered with gallerist David Zwirner on that second venture, and she envisioned a place that would give her customers a way to easily bring Il Buco home with them. Her bi-level address came with plenty of dine-in space, too, though, thanks to the 2,700 square feet on each floor, and she set to work building a place that would channel her flagship’s warmth but have its own identity.
Today, she’s still trying to realize the full potential of that restaurant while building a housewares offshoot, Il Buco Vita, which has a little space down the street from her original restaurant.
Il Buco is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week with nightly guest-chef dinners featuring the restaurant’s alumni and an afternoon pig roast on Sunday, September 21. See the line-up of events after the interview.
Tell me a bit about the idea of Il Buco as a gathering space.
We created Il Buco from scratch on a lark with $70,000 and an idea. It was a trading post in terms of products, pieces of art, wooden antiques, and plates, but also ideas — and that extended into people from different places meeting in New York, in that space, sharing ideas, and having creative conversation. What Il Buco has been about is not really creating a restaurant. It’s a place to live and share, and what better way to do that than over breaking bread. I love the fact that my son can come in here and say, “This is my place, this is what my mom did.”
Talk to me a bit about opening Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria.
Four years ago, somebody approached me about the space on Great Jones. It was this incredible space with an incredible landlord, but it was a huge project. I had no idea. We got in and found out we basically had to rebuild the building. There was a huge amount of space — 2,700 feet on each floor, and we had three floors. It all but buried me. It was hugely exciting, ambitious, and somewhat overwhelming, but it was also a great labor of love in terms of having the palette to create something from scratch and really redefine the brand of Il Buco.
I didn’t realize then how intensely what it was going to mean for my life. I was just getting married, and my husband and I were deciding whether I should take the space and go forward. He really supported me and pushed me and said, “You have to do this.” I was very lucky to get a financial partner in David Zwirner, the gallerist, who I met in his home at an Alice Waters Edible Schoolyard event. It ended up being the two of us putting the project together.
The challenge was creating another space. Il Buco is about creating a space. I’m a filmmaker, and I’m creative visceral — so I wanted a feeling as warm and inviting as Il Buco, but a totally different identity. How do you find that? It’s fun and harrowing. We have these delicious friends in Italy who are minor partners, and partners in Il Buco Vita — one is an architect and the other is a renaissance man who paints and collects antiques. The sent beautiful antiques from Italy.
Pete Wells made my life — without that review, I don’t know where we would have been. Our business doubled in first five months. Alimentari is a huge challenge, but also a huge joy and a great success. It’s still being developed; all the potential has not yet been realized. It’s challenging and exciting that there’s so much more to do.
How do you differentiate the food between the two?
Il Buco was never about the chef — it was more of a revolving door, and people don’t really notice who’s in our kitchen. It’s just Il Buco. Alimentari has been more chef-driven. Justin [Smillie] got pulled away by Stehen Starr. That was kind of shocking. But I brought in Roger Martinez, a new wonderful chef from Barcelona who has been working with Bouley for three years. He’s also worked with all of these wonderful Spanish chefs that I really admire — Joan Roca and Ferran Adrià. It’s kind of like going back to early days of Il Buco — we were all about Spain in the beginning. I love the food of Spain; he loves Italian food, but has the Spanish roots. Il Buco is not Italian — we’re Mediterranean. Alimentari has a little more classic Italian feel.
What about your chef at Il Buco?
My current chef doesn’t get enough attention. Joel [Hough] combines all the elements I’ve ever looked for in a chef. He’s very talented, very mature, and very organized. He’s a joy to be around, a joy to travel with, and a joy go out for dinner with. That takes the stress out of the job.
And each spot has its own regulars?
After we built Alimentari, it was really interesting to see my customer base split down the middle. Half say, “We love Alimentari, it’s our new spot.” The other half say, “You know, we love Alimentari, but Il Buco is our spot.” That’s a wonderful feeling — that you can create something and not take away from an original and not have to choose. And I love walking in and seeing people in both spots. Some people are back and forth. There are great people in the neighborhood — there are all these beautiful characters.
Any big lessons learned over 20 years?
Keep the course. Follow the dream — don’t ever stray from the vision. If you keep your vision solid, the people who come are going to be the people you want. We never really cater to the public. Our public came here because they enjoyed something in this. That was really important — we never compromise the quality.
Work on a team. It’s all about teamwork. For me, service in a restaurant is about choreography. It’s a different dance every night. Having a team that knows how to work together keeps it cohesive.
Be able to delegate and trust in the people that you choose. I trust in my chefs. It’s about finding the magic.
Keep changing. You can’t have the same menu for 20 years. I’m the barometer. I live upstairs, I eat here all the time, and I get room service upstairs. If I’m tired of the food, my customers are going to be getting tired of it, so we have to keep it alive. Never get complacent — strive to make it better.
And don’t build too many places — I’m done. One was great. Two is enormous. It’s like everything became exponentially bigger. I prefer to keep it simple. I’ve extended as far as I can go for the moment.
What about moments you’re most proud of?
Three stars [for Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria] in the New York Times. That was fuckin’ awesome. It was earth-shattering. I cried. I couldn’t believe it. We hadn’t been reviewed by the Times since ’94, when we opened. My dream was to have a three- or four-star review for a restaurant with great quality, but no tablecloths. When that review came out and got sent to me by the PR company, nothing could have prepared me for that moment. It was a culmination of everything I’d ever done.
Also, the moment we finished putting Il Buco together and I looked at my partner and said, “Can you believe that this is what we made?” And then walking into the dining room and having multiple tables of regulars who know each other across the room — those are the moments when you feel you created something meaningful for someone else.
This neighborhood has changed a bit, no?
It’s really interesting — most people say, “Oh, it’s not the old neighborhood anymore,” but there’s such a neighborhood feeling still. It’s a really nice group of people here, and it still maintains the feel in spite of all the development and modernity and the so-called lost heritage of Bond Street. Is it the same? No, but it’s really a nice community that attracts like minds, and that’s heartwarming. Maybe as long as the cobblestones are here we’ll have that.
How has the industry evolved over the last two decades?
I don’t know if you can make an Il Buco today, unfortunately. It’s so expensive. There are great things happening in the restaurant business at large — farm-to-table sounds kind of cliche now because it’s become part of the restaurant scene. People are striving to do things well. But on the other hand, there’s this drive to make a living, and you have the expense of rent and the cost of keeping things going. It’s challenging to be in the restaurant business and do it in this style.
Where do you go from here?
I’d like to set it up for myself to have more free time, which means I need to tighten up each of these places so they can run on their own. Il Buco really does that. Alimentari’s just getting there, but it’s an adolescent, and it needs a little more attention. I like to do the tweaking, not the day-to-day running. With Il Buco Vita, I hope it finds its stride and is beautiful and works. When it becomes too much, it’s not fun anymore. Life’s supposed to be fun — the minute work becomes a burden, it’s not fulfilling its purpose. We’re lucky enough to do what we love and be able to support ourselves that way.
In celebration of its anniversary, Il Buco will host guest alumni chefs in its space all week, and it kicked off festivities with Jody Williams last night. Here’s the rest of the schedule:
September 16: Sara Jenkins (Porchetta, Porsena)
September 17: Justin Smillie (Upland)
September 18: Joel Hough (il Buco) and Roger Martinez (il Buco Alimentari)
September 19: Christopher Lee (Chez Panisse, Eccolo)
September 20: Ignacio Mattos (Estela)
September 21: Pig roast, 1 to 6 p.m.
September 21: Francis Mallmann (1884, Patagonia Sur, Garzon) — beginning at 8 p.m., following the pig roast