But he was ready to shift gears. He recently left the kitchen at Gotham, where he remains a partner, to launch Portale, in Flatiron. Its sleek, 114-seat dining room and bar have been packed since the place opened in November, and its hearty, unfussy dishes taste as good as they look.
The 65-year-old chef had lots to say about Portale before it opened, but not much since. Here, he dishes on how it’s going so far, shares his thoughts on red sauce and reveals the weird secret ingredient in his pesto.
Your grandparents emigrated from Sicily. You grew up in an Italian-American household in Buffalo, NY. Does your menu have any riffs on your childhood favorites?
The roasted fennel salad with black rice and blood orange was sort of inspired by a dish my mother made on Thanksgiving and Christmas. But back then, we did not have blood oranges. They were oranges.
You’ve described your style at Portale as “Italian through a lens of French technique.” Is that just a more exacting way to prepare Italian cuisine?
That’s exactly it. Our brodetto di pesce is a perfect example of Italian inspiration and French technique. It’s a cross between bouillabaisse and cioppino with cod, shellfish and salmon. Both begin with a seafood stock, but brodetto has more tomato, which is what I’m doing at Portale. I also add saffron, which is found in a classic bouillabaisse.
I read that this wasn’t a red-sauce restaurant, but at least two dishes, cavatelli di ricotta arrabbiata and spaghetti al frutti di mare, sure looked red to me.
[Chuckles] I’ve got nothing against red sauce. I love it. At home every month, I make a huge pot of red sauce. I cork and freeze it and dole it out to my daughters.
What’s the deal with cilantro pesto in the cavatelli dish? Cilantro doesn’t sound particularly Italian.
The cavatelli has tomato sauce. But we make a cilantro pesto instead of the usual basil pesto to go with it. It’s kind of a nod to one of my chefs [Jacinto Guadarrama], whom I’ve worked with for 30 years. He’s from Guerrero, Mexico, where of course they use a lot of cilantro.
Tell me about the maile — roast pork, Nardello peppers and orange mostarda. The pork has rare moisture and an unusual, earthy texture and flavor.
It’s a cut I never used before, a chop that comes from very close to the shoulder. It’s really tender and full of flavor. They call it a country-style pork chop. It’s marinated overnight with rosemary and fennel seeds.
Your floor staff has guys from Gotham, Marea, Café Boulud. But where is your kitchen team from?
I have my two lieutenants [Guadarrama and Adam Longworth] from Gotham. Our pastry chef, Katy Mitchell, is also from Gotham. And we brought a few cooks. But I wanted fresh faces. I have a couple of sous chefs from Carbone and other Italian restaurants. I wasn’t necessarily looking for cooks from Italy.
You helped make the Union Square Greenmarket famous at Gotham. Do you still go there?
I go there four days a week. I have long relationships with some of the people. We mostly missed summer, unfortunately, but I’m buying squash, wild watercress and fingerling potatoes.
Portale has brick walls, marble table tops and background music, yet it’s easy to carry on a conversation. How did you manage that?
Our audio system is pretty special. We have 30 large speakers [spaced around the rooms], so coverage is extraordinary. It means the music can play at low volume, but you can still hear it. Also, the ceiling and other hard surfaces are acoustically treated with a sound-absorbing material.
Have you been back to Gotham since Victoria Blamey took over as executive chef?
Not yet. I do intend on dropping in and seeing what she’s up to.
Portale, 126 W. 18th St., 917-781-0255
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