"Everybody throws around that word 'foodie,' but that word doesn't exist in Italy. Because if you had to define it for an Italian person, "Oh, it's someone who's passionate about food, and always thinking about food and wine and what their next meal's gonna be," an Italian would be like, 'Well, that's everybody.'"
I'd read a lot about Chef Nick Anderer and restaurateur Danny Meyer recognizing their shared love of Roman cuisine and culture. But the idea of how to transport a trattoria to New York stumped me. How do you make an Irish pub feel authentic when you're slapping walls with fresh loads of paint and setting down spanking new, glossy chairs? How do you create a cozy, intimate French bistro with a touch of dark sarcasm? How do you design a trattoria that truly becomes a second home for your neighbors?
Walking into Maialino, you just get it. Sunlight pours in during the breakfast shift, where locals catch up with almost disarmingly friendly yet subtle staff, and tourists from the hotel upstairs are fortified with hot food and advice for their day of meetings or pavement pounding ahead. It's in the menu, which is much more complex and layered than most you will see in Rome, but blends the soul of that cuisine with the energy and complexity of the restaurant industry in New York (and by the number of items that have made our favorites lists, you can guess that we happen to adore it here at Serious Eats). And it's in Anderer's constantly evolving offerings, like a breakfast menu that is just as thoughtful and detailed as the evening entrées, or the new olive oil tasting menu that he hopes will help open up the glory that is in the variety of Italian oils.
Anderer is obviously good with food. And, as someone with a degree in art history from Columbia, he has some solid opinions on art and talent in writing. But Maialino is the closest some of us will get to Rome. So on a warm, sunlit spring day, capturing what a "Roman trattoria" really means was high up on our agenda while across at table from Nick.
So, you're a non-Italian chef doing particularly Roman food in New York. Are there similarities between the two cities that inspired that? I think the similarities are the cosmopolitan energy, the eclectic nature of the influences, and just sort of the "all roads leading to one place" sort of thing. And there's a level of excitement too, on the streets. At first glance it doesn't look or feel like New York when you get off the plane, but the controlled chaos of Rome reminds me a lot of New York.
What about the restaurant cultures? When you start getting down to the nitty gritty of Roman cuisine with the style of how we cook versus how they cook, it's really vastly different. I think one of the best and worst things about Rome is that they're stuck in the past—they only know one way of doing things. There are people that have taken the care to keep perfecting those things, and I've sort of signed onto that team—I want to go back and dust off these old recipes and do things the way Romans do, but in the best possible way things can be done.
Is the notion of hospitality similarly stuck? I think a lot of Americans are put off by Rome. I would say that service is not a premium in Rome; you go to a coffee bar and see that a cashier is busy talking to a friend about last night's soccer game. But I love that. I think it's great that they prize friendships and conversation and food more than they prize making sure that their business is running as successfully as it possibly can.
You're not Italian by heritage. One thing I've noticed and loved about non-Italian chefs picking up the cuisine is how relatable Italian hospitality is—most people can find something to connect with. Was there any personal connection for you? My mom grew up (despite the fact that we weren't Italian) cooking a lot of Italian food. And then going to Rome in my junior year was an eye-opening experience for me of, "Oh, this is what Italian food is." And certain things were far off from what I believed, but the one thing that wasn't was that there was such an appreciation and regional pride of what people did. And that was part of my upbringing, being proud of the food my mother served, and the kind of stuff she'd want to cook and bring home.
What kind of food was that? It was very eclectic. She would cook things that were Japanese-influenced, a lot of Italian food, and recipes from my grandmothers—both from my mom's and dad's side—certain kinds of desserts that were passed down from generation to generation and are the Anderer family desserts that were kept alive. And there's certainly a connection between that and the way Italians think about food. Everybody throws around that word 'foodie,' but that word doesn't exist in Italy. Because if you had to define it for an Italian person, "Oh, it's someone who's passionate about food, and always thinking about food and wine and what their next meal's gonna be," an Italian would be like, "Well, that's everybody." That's a culture that's just there, it doesn't need to be defined or separated from it. So that's something I related to.
So going back to the idea that Roman food is a bit stuck in tradition; you're updating the lost classics for your menu here. Have there been recipes that were particularly hard to introduce to your clientele? Oh man, there were a lot, such as several in the "cuinto quarto" style of cooking, the "fifth quarter," which refers to the off cuts of the animal. And it's a kind of cooking that was prevalent in a neighborhood called Testaccio, which is where the old slaughterhouse existed. All the noble people would get the good stuff, and then all the butchers at the slaughterhouse would take home all the other stuff. And that's how that style of cooking came to be; stewed oxtails, tripe, all these things started to become part of Roman culinary tradition, "the cooking of the people." So those recipes were challenging because I had recipes that were very aggressively flavored and not really tamed at all in terms of gaminess. So it was a matter of going back and making the recipes a little lighter and more palatable for a lighter audience.
Was there a particular one that you had to work more in depth with to make it more approachable? There's a great restaurant in Rome that does a pig's food salad, and if I showed you a picture of it you'd think it was cafeteria food from an Adam Sandler skit or something—it looks like holy hell but it tastes great. And so I was like, "How can we make it look better and not like torn up skin from a pig's foot?"
What was the response to it? It's been great. I think those that ordered it liked it, because once you've decided to order pig's feet meat...it's actually some of the best meat on the pig. It stays super moist and has a gelatinous quality in a good way—it has that gum-smacking, soft-braised, chunks of dark meat kind of feel to it.
Was there a recipe that you love that you just can't do here for one reason or another? I really like this dish of milk-fed lamb or veal intestines; two intestines that still have a little bit of milk in them, so they have this super pungent smell, and there's nothing you can really do about it other than blanching them so many times that what's the point? But it's a dish that I particularly love and my wife loves. They usually serve it with rigatoni and a spicy tomato sauce, and then you have these two intestines floating around all over. But when you take it to the dining room you can smell it. You know it's there. And I just don't think that will fly. Because you're not just doing a disservice to one person if they don't eat it, you're doing a disservice to the whole dining room.
Hospitality is a huge talking point with any chef that works for Danny. What does it mean to you, particularly here? I think with each person I have a different agenda. And "agenda" isn't even the right word; it sounds kinda cold. But depending on who the person is I'm just trying to make sure that they walk out with a smile for whatever reason, no matter how we put it there—because we nailed their coffee in the morning exactly the way they like it, or because we transported them back to Rome with a bowl of carbonara. And they're very different things. I'm not so naïve to assume that everyone's going to come in here and get my agenda as a chef, which is to go back and be an archivist with Roman cuisine, to brush off old recipes and bring some light to them. Yeah, that sounds all cool on paper, but that's not what they're looking for when they come into Maialino. It's just to deliver the experience they're looking for. And that's the higher, loftier goal—to nail that individually for everybody—than to accomplish my culinary goals.