Editor's note: You may have seen Daniel Meyer's writing on Diner's Journal for the New York Times, where he's eloquently written about everything from home cooking to the unsung heroes of the food industry. He's dropping in today with one of those stories, this one about the new general manager of Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria—both his journey through food and his new work at the restaurant. Take it away, Daniel!
By many accounts, Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria has exceptional food, some of the best bread and gelato in the city, and is in the running for the finest salumi in the country. But come late September, the young trattoria-salumeria on Great Jones Street is going to get a serious infusion of soul.
It will come in the form of general manager Roberto Paris, a soft-spoken, cerebral, 58-year-old Umbrian who for eleven years (1997 to 2009) was the wine director and general manager at Il Buco, Alimentari's older sister around the corner. He's been gone for three years, restoratively far, far away from what he calls the "merciless" business of restaurants in New York City. But he's on his way back, and Alimentari stands to gain quite a lot upon his return.
So, why does a restaurant that's been larded with critical and popular praise, and is neck-deep in blue-ribbon products need some older gentleman from Italy who most of us have never heard of? The answer to that question unfurled over nearly four hours of languid conversation (some on the phone and the rest in Alimentari's cozy back booth), and one more of shadowing Roberto through the opening act of a Saturday night dinner service.
The first clue was that for a man who has devoted much of his life to working in restaurants, he talks shockingly little about food. He'd scarcely mentioned it all until we tucked into a few bites from the kitchen. The most important part of a restaurant, he insisted more than once, is not the food, the wine, the ambiance, or the décor. Not even close. It's "the human factor," the feeling of community and family that is all-too-often neglected in such a cutthroat business. That's what he'll be bringing back to New York, and that's ultimately why he'll matter.
Roberto comes from Montefalco, a wine-producing region in Umbria (he takes particular pride in having introduced the wines of his home town to New York City during his time at Il Buco). He suspended his university studies at 23 to work in a bar of the Italian variety, the kind that's open from sunup to nightcap. He was restless and adventurous and too passionate about wine to peddle little more than the de facto cappuccinos and Proseccos of the typical Italian bar. So he started serving esoteric wines by the glass, specialty beers, and cocktails, all things that by his account nobody else was doing at the time.
At 29 he took to traveling, resuming his studies (history, philosophy, classics) in Germany, living in France, darting frequently across to the U.S., and dropping in on as many wine producers as he could. At 40 he moved to the States, where his New York restaurant career began by reading a notice in New York Magazine about a new restaurant space being opened on Bond Street by Alberto Avalle and his partner Donna Lennard. Roberto and Avalle went to high school together; this was the first that any of Avalle's old friends had heard of him since graduation. After two years of reconnecting, Avalle and Lennard asked Roberto to join Il Buco and help out with the wines.
He did more than help. With an intimate and ever-expanding knowledge of Italian producers (especially those in his home region), Roberto turned Il Buco into a destination for little-known Italian wines. He progressed from sommelier, to general manager, to general manager/wine director, all the while solidifying himself as Donna's confidant and right-hand man (his old friend Alberto had already moved back to Italy).
Roberto only meant to stay for a little while. "New York," he resigned, "is not a place for a man growing older. But Il Buco was my oasis." Without it he would have left New York much sooner. He ended up staying eleven years.
When he finally did leave Il Buco it was because he had lost the pure pleasure of interacting with his customers (he hates that word, by the way, and prefers to think of them as his community). All he wanted to do when people came into the restaurant was hide and read a book. That's when he realized it was time to take a break. Roberto talks about his parting with Il Buco as if it were the end of a romance. "It's like when you are in a long relationship," he contemplated. "When you break up you are discombobulated, but it's also a time to discover different aspects of yourself."
His self-discovery and much-needed rejuvenation has taken place over the past three years as he has flitted back and forth between sailing, hiking, and cooking in Southeast Asia (he always carries five liters of olive oil in his bag), and working summers on the private Italian estate of a major (but unspecified) Hollywood director.
In February of this year, Lennard came to visit Roberto in Thailand, where she convinced him to come back to New York for good. He has been at Alimentari on and off for the last few months (he is still committed to working the busy swings at the estate in Italy through the end of the summer), but come fall he'll be here permanently.
I asked Roberto what his title and day-to-day responsibilities might be once he starts working at Alimentari full time. He doesn't quite know, and doesn't particularly care; the job he's been recruited to do is not so tangible. To be sure, he will be intimately involved in training the staff, helping customers navigate the wines, and running the floor, but the most valuable contribution he stands to make can't really be measured in traditional restaurant currencies like covers or margins. His value to the restaurant is in his vision and his ideals.
And what exactly are those ideals? That "Alimentari is a new baby that needs some fostering and nurturing." That a restaurant must do way more than just leave people with a fuller stomach and a lighter wallet. "Knowledge alone is almost useless information. But if I know and discover something and can transfer it to somebody else who's having dinner, then my knowledge grows exponentially."
Roberto believes that the comfort he gets from belonging to the community of history is the same sense of belonging he seeks to foster for the staff and patrons of his restaurant. One of his methods to break down the wall between customer and staff: "Being a server is really easy if you think that the person in front of you is actually yourself."
You can see these maxims at work when dinner service begins and Roberto starts roaming the floor. He jumps at the chance to engage with diners and help create for them the experience that he would want for himself, to "add," as he says, "a little stone to that mosaic."
When he's not pouring wine, checking on reservations, or doing any odd task that needs to get done, you'll almost certainly find him chatting, sometimes earnestly, sometimes playfully, usually one-on-one, with a member of the staff, the chef, the host, a server, a runner, whoever. You can tell he cherishes those moments with patrons and employees alike, the fleeting chances in a busy night to make his mark, to ensure that under his watch the community is always growing from within its own walls.
As Roberto and I talked over coffee at the back booth, Donna Lennard slid in along the banquette and planted a big kiss on his lips (the kind that close relatives might give each other). I asked her why she brought Roberto back. "How could I live without him?" she said without skipping a beat. "You have to have your family always around. You can't keep them away for too long."
Then I asked her what he brings to Alimentari. "He brings the je ne sais quoi. He knows what it is and he tries to capture it. You can be as professional as you want, but if the place doesn't have any soul, people don't come back. People come back because they feel something. People come back to Il Buco for 18 years because there's something inside that's visceral. Roberto provides that visceral element."
Call it soul, call it the visceral element, or just call it je ne sais quoi: either way it's nice to know that the man who has it will soon be back in town to stay.