In Little Italy, on the southern end of Mulberry Street, Aunt Jake’s (151 Mulberry Street, 646-858-0470) blends in quietly with the neighborhood’s sidewalk hawkers. What draws diners in for their first visit is a long stretch of kitchen counter, abundantly arranged with fresh pasta, which is made on site throughout the day. It’s as photogenic as a Food Network set, and seeing those fresh shapes take form — rolled, pulled, and cut throughout the day — inspires a nose-to-glass hunger. A massive chalkboard on the opposite wall spells out a menu of salads, bruschetta, and mix-and-match combos of pastas and sauces to order in and take out. At the back of the space, stairs lead to a second-floor dining room, where executive chef and partner Carmine Di Giovanni sears fresh lamb in fiery oil before pouring a mouthwatering umami glaze over the top. Freshly plucked sage leaves dot the plate, as Technicolor as the bright enamel pots simmering all around the cooks.
It’s that first bite at the table — and, these being happily oversize portions, a last bite at home — that Di Giovanni and owner Nick Boccio (who also runs the Mulberry Project next door) hope will set those hawkers on mute. Ideally, guests will return to take away some beet pappardelle with puttanesca sauce or tagliatelle with a Sunday gravy studded with fork-broken meatballs. And if they do, the team behind Aunt Jake’s intend for that to be the starting point for a successful model, one that leads them toward becoming an upstart national operation.
They share the same aspirations as last year’s like-minded spate of upscale fast-casual openings, which included Superiority Burger, Fuku, and BEC. Parm, Major Food Group’s flashier (and higher-priced) Little Italy concept, is a hit all over town, but it’s not their competition, because what you get at Aunt Jake’s is a hot and fast bargain — multiple meal combinations can be had for under $10. “The idea to start on Mulberry Street was for growth nationwide, so it has the authenticity of growing out of Little Italy,” Di Giovanni says. “People come to Little Italy looking for value.”
The idea was conceived three years ago, around the same time Di Giovanni opened the Greenwich Project on West 8th Street. “Now that it’s up and running and doing well, we started to focus on this one,” he says. He believes it’ll take just as long to see a second Aunt Jake’s come to fruition. “You’ve got to start with one before you can open five. After about two years, two years of up and down, you find out your ebbs and flows with the consistency of the product. And that’s what’s going to make us a success — consistency.”
Di Giovanni also believes that long-term investment in multiple locations is where the real payoff lies for Manhattan restaurateurs today. “The real estate market in New York City has gotten so out of control. Opening one restaurant is great, as long as it’s holding down its numbers, but the profit margins are so small.” While restaurants once saw margins in the 20–30 percent range, Di Giovanni now sees them at around 5 percent.
Of course, the owners of a pasta joint in decades past would have recoiled at the way diners tend to dictate menus today, let alone offer cooking to-go. “But I think that’s where dining is nowadays, versus that elongated meal,” Di Giovanni says. Sometimes, there’s even an upside to carrying out your pappardelle. “Because it’s a large ribbon-like noodle, it’s the one pasta that doesn’t travel so well. It’ll start to stick together. But some people like that because when they get home it’s like a lasagna.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 27, 2016