On page 268 of the cookbook I Love New York by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, a visually arresting photograph features The NoMad's Milk and Honey dish: a scoop of milk ice football-shaped, laced with honey, and sitting on a bed of brittle, crumble, and dehydrated milk foam. The shot is an overhead. The dessert looks great. But its smooth bowl, made of sleek white stoneware with a rugged, unglazed orange-red rim, may look even better. It nests in a similar, even larger bowl. The stoneware bowls come from the potter's wheel of Jono Pandolfi.
Jono Pandolfi is not a ceramicist. He hand-crafts ceramics, yes, but he does so on a scale somewhere between that of a successful small potter and that of a small factory. Pandolfi is, in his words, "a dinnerware designer and manufacturer."
In a year, Pandolfi produces some 10,000 pieces of dinnerware: plates, chargers, mugs, bowls, teapots, and so on. He and his assistants make these ceramics in his Union City, New Jersey studio, housed on the third floor of a ruined factory perched on a bluff high above the Hudson River. From his studio, where racks and racks of plates dry, the music of Herbie Hancock vibrates in the air, and a film of red clay dust coats just about everything, you can see the Manhattan skyline. Many of Pandolfi's ceramics end up in better restaurants in the city across the river: Eleven Madison Park, The NoMad, Atera, wd~50, and plenty more.
Pandolfi started in ceramics young. "I always enjoyed clay," he says. "I always had a connection to it." At Skidmore he ran the ceramics studio, and today, years later, Pandolfi teaches at the Parsons School of Design. He landed his first restaurant job in 2004, when he crafted ceramic bud vases for MoMA's Terrace 5.
That, too, was his big break. Pandolfi got that job through Guidara, the co-owner of Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad. Pandolfi and Guidara went to the same high school and, for a time, played in the same band, Hydrant, a nine-piece ska group that saw Pandolfi on bass, Guidara on drums. Their first ceramics collaboration was a success. Since, Pandolfi has done 5,000 pieces for Eleven Madison Park and another 7,000 for The NoMad.
How does someone hand-make so many pieces? With the knowledge, skill, and dogged effort similar to that needed to grow fields of heirloom crops or raise dozens of heritage animals. People are curious about the how and where of food. Why should the curiosity end there?
"You start with the clay and the glaze," Pandolfi says. "What clay are you going to use—Stoneware? Porcelain? White Stoneware? You settle on that, and then you think glaze. Is it going to be white? How white? Figure that out, and then start designing."
Then: "You sit with the chef and say, 'Chef, what do you need?' And they'll say 'Well, we want a 10.5-inch charger, an 11-inch dinner plate, a 9-inch...' What you start with is a list of shapes. Then you design a piece or two for each shape on the list. Then you weed out what you don't like, and narrow in."
The process may result in a white-rimmed matte-black dessert plate for Aquavit, a just-concave butter plate with a speckled, eggshell-like surface for Aureole, or an ornate bowl-in-bowl combo for The NoMad.
Based on the client, the creative process differs. Some are overjoyed with pieces Pandolfi has, and request reproductions with a few changes. "For Tosca, I showed April [Bloomfield] a bunch of samples. There was one plate that really resonated with her. I took that plate and made a six-piece place setting based on that."
Some want to design from nothing. That presents Pandolfi a creative challenge that he has come to relish. "I factor in what the food is going to look like," he explains. "But it's more about working with the chef to understand their aesthetic. And then, to some extent, they're going to evolve and adapt to what you give them."
"For Eleven Madison Park," he continues, "I designed a lot of pieces that work together in interesting and creative way—pieces that are versatile, pieces that will be able to be used in different ways through the seasons."
The bowl duo from I Love New York also fits that description. You can see and admire how the earthy orange of the unglazed stoneware matches the brownish brittle of the dessert, how the glazed center's smoothness and whiteness mirror that of the milk ice, and how the crags and crannies of the brittle and crumble create a rugged depth alike yet unalike the easy, raised rings on each bowl's broad rim.
It's pretty cool. It's also pretty cool that Pandolfi has been able to keep a small operation. He himself sits at the wheel and shapes clay, dries it, bisque-fires it, glazes it, fires it again, and ships off finished ceramics in the very boxes that carry unshaped clay to his studio.
"I never really knew what I wanted to get out of ceramics," Pandolfi says. "But now I do. Doing 100 or 200 plates a day is awesome, and I never thought I'd be making 10,000 pieces a year with my name on them, and that's just the beginning. I consider myself the luckiest potter in America."
See more of Pandolfi's work on his website.
About the author: Chris Malloy is a writer from the Philadelphia area. He has a Master's in Food Studies from Boston University. If you enjoyed this story, check out some of his other work.