We Chat with Chef Angelo Romano of The Pines

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

Chef Angelo Romano has a nice gig going on in Gowanus—refurbished furniture and some unique accents from shuttered upstate resort The Pines (check this out for some eery historical info) and a chef-driven menu that brings the familiar and the adventurous together with skill. Set where it is, the place aims for middle-aged locals with a bit of eating experience under their belts, but also nomadic Manhattanites and Brooklynites looking for something new.

With a newly opened back area boasting a 10-foot grill, several bins of growing greens, a serious cider bar and casual, straightforward food offerings and an interior menu with potential to grow, Romano has a lot on his hands. Here he talks about what it takes to make it all work, and why his heart is in Gowanus.

You've been open for a bit now. Are you feeling good about where you are? I feel it's going in a good direction. We're learning things as we go along and kind of just trusting our gut while trying to push it as far as we can.

Do you feel like this neighborhood gives you a decent license to push a little further? For a courageous city, we're still pretty tame. Yeah, I think with kid gloves to a certain level. It doesn't go as weird as it could.

Why? It's not by choice; it's just by the nature of things. You just kind of do it subconsciously. There might be an ingredient that you don't have that often, but the flavor is still going to translate in a way that you're very familiar with, if it's a level of salt or acid or texture or bitterness. You could never have heard of mibuna before, but when you eat it you're like, "Oh, it looks like a dandelion green but it's not as bitter and it's got a slight sulfuric flavor." It kind of teaches you, in a way, whether you're trying to be taught or not.

American sturgeon caviar with goat's milk custard, celery granita, and wood sorrel.

Has there been anything you've been unsure of but your guests loved? We're blowing through garganelli right now; we do a ton of sea urchin. The squab has been the only thing that has taken a while to get going but we still keep it on because I love that dish.

You grew up eating all sorts of animal parts—does that help you fill our growing demand for offal? Is it a convenience for you? Convenient is a good word for it. You definitely cook from a level of familiarity, and growing up cooking gives you much more of an advantage than someone for who the focus of their family life wasn't based around the kitchen. You also have a level of base flavors that you relate to, versus just cooking the way that someone taught you when you were 19 and in culinary school.

Santa Barbara sea urchin with sea-buckthorn juice, amaranth and sturgeon.

It seems like part of your competition is other chef-driven menus around the city that give younger chefs a chance to show their talent. But that doesn't mean the food always backs them up—how do you make sure yours does? You're right, it's putting more on the chef's shoulders because you're carrying not only the restaurant but the idea of what the restaurant is starting from and going. So you have to always be a month ahead of the restaurant as far as where you're going with it. And you definitely have to pay attention to what the guests want and to what makes you the happiest, because I think that translates into the food.

What's the most vital part of staying one month ahead? I think the most important thing is being able to conceptualize dishes in your head before you're testing them, especially with such a short budget. It's like, "Oh, I'm getting in a whole pig and in two weeks I'm getting nectarines in from California." We can't wait until we have these things in house because we'll waste a lot of time and the product will go bad. Thinking of the dish in our heads first is so much more important than spending three days tasting it and testing it; it's more about getting the base dish down and then tweaking it that day. We're never going to put something on the dish we're not 100% happy with, ever, but thinking what we want that entity to be saves more time and adds more integrity to the dish.

Squid Ink Garganelli with mussels, burrata, and Korean chili.

You've also added the bar menu to your list of recipes. Yeah, my sous chef John does most of the cocktails, and I do the wine with Zev Rovine and my buddy Justin Chearno. It allows us to add cool ingredients, because at a lot of places I've worked with it's hard for the bartender to work with seasonal stuff unless they take their days off to visit Flushing or look online for private growers or foragers. I do that already. We know when wild huckleberries are coming in. Sour plum is in season now, so we're doing a drink with sour plum. It actually almost makes it easier and a little more fun. It adds a little bit more to everybody's work load but it keeps thing interesting. And a lot more honest, I think.

Do you feel your breadth of technique contributes more, too? We did this event last weekend and the drinks were really good, but there was a pinch of purple micro basil on top of one drink and a shiso leaf sticking out of the side and a shitload of frothy egg on the top. And it was balanced by the time you got through all of the bullshit, but it's like micro greens are cool to mixologists right now but they don't know any better. Bar programs have gotten so aggressive but are also ten years behind, I think.

You've got a new backyard just opening with a much more casual menu, and are changing your inside one regularly. How do you want your near future to progress? I love the direction that we're headed, and I just want to focus on the area we're in and reach out to the community more. I think it's an amazing neighborhood that has a lot of potential.

Parts of Brooklyn seem to have just a ton of Manhattan chefs transplanted. Do you feel like this neighborhood is sparking potential of people planting their stake and doing something that's uniquely Brooklyn? Yeah, there are so many neighborhoods in Manhattan that are engulfed by tourism, so they're not getting sustainable people that are going to return all the time. There's so much more of a sense of community in Brooklyn, hands down. So it makes more sense to be in a neighborhood that's going to embrace you and evolve as you evolve, and trust in what you're doing.

About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks things now and then for her bread and butter. Read more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet excessively with her at @dustybakergal.

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