Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures of the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In Heart of the House, Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.
Most of the people we interview for Heart of the House have come to New York to make it in the culinary world, but this chef was already accomplished by the time he arrived two years ago. Marco Porceddu, the executive chef at Ristorante Asellina and the Gansevoort Hotel, was recognized as one of the best hotel chefs in America by the James Beard Foundation at just 28, while manning the kitchen at Steve Wynn's Vegas restaurant Francesco.
Now housed in the Gansevoort Park Hotel, Marco has brought both traditional and inventive Italian fare to the East coast with charcuterie plates of Italian cured meats and antipasto ($17) and dishes like Pistachio Garganelli with Handmade Sausage, Wild Mushrooms and Rosemary ($25).
Marco is passionate about seafood and authentic European cooking. He recently took me on a tour of his kitchen and menu at Asellina while spilling about his culinary philosophies, his love affair with sushi, and what it's been like as a transplant to the city.
You have an incredibly rich background in food, starting with your childhood in Sardinia. How did you get started? I've worked with food all of my life. When I was a kid, nine years old, I started working in my father's café. We had pastries, pizzas, chocolate, wine, and cocktails. The hours were from 7 AM to midnight, and I started just cleaning it after school. By sixteen, I was bartending for about four hours a day. After eight years working with my father, I left, got my degree in accounting, and started working in hotel food and beverage departments. I came to the United States a few years later, first to San Francisco and then San Diego for a year. And then I moved to Las Vegas and stayed for 16 years. I loved it, and after two years there I called it home.
Why was your time in Vegas so special? I did everything in Vegas. I had a consulting firm while I was there, so we were opening restaurants all over the world. When I was 26 I opened a restaurant for Steve Wynn from scratch, called Francesco, which was a fish-oriented restaurant. I love to cook anything, but fish is really my specialty. I also think Vegas has the best food in the world.
How did you become involved in an Italian restaurant in New York? The owners of the ONE Group flew out to Vegas and came to me with this concept for Asellina. They spoke to a few chefs about it, but ended up picking me to be the executive chef. We're doing good so far; next we'll be opening in Seattle and then London.
Tell me about the concept at Asellina. It's a big hotel restaurant, but the food seems like the type you'd get at a more intimate venue. When we decided to open, we decided to do food that was female-oriented. So the dishes are light, vibrant, contemporary. Every dish has a hint of passion in it, but everything is digestible. We have a pizza with shrimp, caramelized onion and blueberry that's incredible. There's a tuna tartare that comes with robiola cheese and black truffle ($18). We buy the best ingredients in the market, so the food is pure. I did the menu in one day, and it took me three months to balance it. There's a whole psychology behind just that. The food is authentically European-Italian, and we don't follow recipes. We create ten specials a day just from scratch.
Speaking of seasonal cooking, I can't help asking—have you encountered ramps in your kitchen yet? I do have some coming to me. Maybe I'll do a pasta with them, or stuff some ravioli triangles. There's so much stuff you can do with ramps.
The menu is pretty extensive; what are some of your standout dishes? The pastas are probably the best pastas you can have in New York. We do pasta like the Europeans do. I'll tell you with confidence it's probably the best noodle you will every have. Every noodle has a different dough. So we have a garganelli made with pistachio in the dough, one by one. Then I have one with infused balsamic vinegar, so the pasta is black. I have one with chocolate in the dough, which is served with wild boar ragu. We have one which is made with 100% Semolina, with no water, no eggs, so it's very thick and chewy. And we don't use sauce. It's only water. The only sauce we have is the tomato sauce, which is insane. It's stupid how good it is. It's an emulsion of hot oil and herbs, but that's all I'll tell you.
We also do pizzas in a European style. The mix of the flour has to be perfect, so that's why they're not like American-style pizzas, which are dough-y and heavy. They're cooked in the oven for one minute and 15 seconds to make them perfectly crisp.
You're creating Italian dishes all day long. Do you enjoy them during your time off as well? I never go out to eat Italian. My favorite type of food is Asian, and I love sushi so much that I want to get married to it. But in my opinion, the Asian food in New York is very American. If you want good Asian food you have to go to Los Angeles. The Korean food kicks ass there. The best Asian food in the country is on the West coast. Ironically, Vegas is a sushi town. There's a sushi plate every three feet. The fish comes by plane, just like it does here. The best sushi I've ever had in my life is in Vegas.
So it sounds like New York's dining still has some convincing to do for you? I love New York. I've only been here two years, so I still have a lot of places to go to and I'm still learning. I think it's overrated for a lot of things, but at the same time, if you know where to go, you're set.