Having spent the last five years at the venerated Rubirosa, it’s no wonder that Al Di Meglio is indelibly associated with pizza (the fact that the Staten Island native was practically weaned on Joe & Pat’s, and started working in slice shops at the age of 15 strengthens the link even further!). And so, with the opening of his new Southern Italian restaurant, Barano, it stands to reason that much of the focus has been on his wood burning oven — would he seek to replicate the top-rated Nolita pie in Williamsburg?
“That’s been the biggest challenge; everyone knows Rubirosa, so it was important to me to separate myself, and show diners what I envision pizza to be,” Di Meglio said. “I wanted to create something that was a little fluffier and thicker; to bridge the gap between a classic Neapolitan and a New York pie.”
We also chatted with the magnanimous chef about his altruistic definition of success, why he’s a bit of a masochist, and his surprising passion for Chinese food.
Did you always want to be a chef, growing up?
I didn’t know I wanted to be a chef, per se, but from the age of 10 I was pretty involved with food; whether I was making bread with my grandmother or playing around in the kitchen while everyone else was sleeping. It was normal to me, whereas it probably wasn’t normal for other kids my age.
Was there a particular “aha moment” which set you on the path to pursuing food as a career?
It was probably when I was around 15 years old; whenever it is that you can first get your working papers, and my mom told me it was time to get a job. So I figured I’d get a job at a place where I could eat, and I started making pizza. It was fun, it didn’t even feel like work and I was plugging away for 60-70 hours a week.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
When I was at Le Cirque, the chef at the time was Sottha Kuhn. And basically, he’d talk about how everyone wanted to be a chef, and how hard it was, and ask me why I wanted to do it. He’d tell me that only 1% would make it, or be successful. Because, as he put it, “This business doesn’t want anybody, you have to want this business. If you want it, you can take it. But if you don’t want it, it’s going to eat you alive, and you’re going to be miserable.” It stuck with me, and to this day, it’s what I tell my cooks. It’s what I ask them during interviews. Because I want to know, even before you touch a pan or we talk food, why the hell you want to cook. Because if you just want money, or just want to be cool, it’s not going to work.
So after gaining plenty of acclaim at Rubirosa, what made you decide to open your own restaurant in Brooklyn?
I’m always up for adventure; I’m a little bit of a masochist. And I love opening things. I have three kids, so I think that seeing something new grow is an amazing thing. There’s risk, you don’t know if it’s going to make it, and there are a lot of question marks. And that’s an exciting thing to me. I was also at Rubirosa for a long time, five years, and I loved it, but it was time to try something new. It was comfortable, and it was time to shake things up for myself. And Brooklyn seemed like a challenge; especially South Brooklyn, which is about to explode, but isn’t there yet. I also wanted to cook a slightly different style of Italian food, and serve it to a new audience. And in opening Barano, I was able to be involved in everything, from designing the front of the house to deciding where the drains would go.
So besides merely cooking Italian food, what was your specific concept for Barano?
I love the simplicity of Italian food, and I wanted to cook food that was familiar to people, but present it in a format that’s slightly different. Take my eggplant parm. Eggplant parm is typically more about texture than it is about eggplant, because you’re covering thin pieces of eggplant in breading, and then frying it, and then drowning it in sauce and cheese. But I wanted to create a dish that was really about eggplant, so I just used the bare minimum of breading, sauce and cheese. If you’re eating an eggplant or a cherry or whatever, it’s gotta be about that, with everything else playing a supporting role. That’s the way I like to cook. It’s the same with my pizza. Everyone thinks it’s whole wheat, but that’s because it’s more akin to what people used to eat; dough created from flour that wasn’t formulated to sit on shelves for three years.
Obviously a lot of people know you for pizza. How is your pizza similar to what we’ve come to expect from you at Rubirosa, and how is it different?
It comes down to how good your dough, sauce and cheese taste, and most places only hit two out of the three. I wanted to hit three out of three all the time. Not that I don’t like Rubirosa; I love them, I grew up on Joe & Pat’s. But mine is a little crisper on the bottom, the dough has a little bit more airiness and a softness to it. I make my own mozzarella, because I wanted a little more salinity than you get in the mozzarella you generally buy, and I started mixing two tomato sauces; San Marzano DOP (because I wanted a tomato that was from Naples, from around the Vesuvius area because of the volcanic soil), and then I wanted to take locally-sourced Lucky tomatoes, put a little char on them, and add them to the pie too. So there’s a mix of traditional and classic and local and new. I’m just trying to give you something you know, but reinterpret it through my eyes.
Let’s talk food trends. What are some current culinary trends that you can really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
I embrace the wood-burning thing obviously. It brings back memories to me of the way my grandmother used to cook, and she’s off the boat from Italy. She’s never understood stoves where you turn the knob and flames just come up; she was used to cooking with wood, which was such a process, but imparts so much more flavor. So I always wanted to cook with wood too. NYC code wouldn’t allow it until a couple of years ago, through; they just recently opened the door, which is why you’re seeing a flood of places that are just so excited that they can finally burn shit in an enclosed restaurant!
What do I want to see die? New York is a trend city, so things come and go like fashion. It is what it is. Everything gets recycled, and when it gets recycled, all I care about is that you make it better. Don’t just copy. Put your twist on it, stand out, and maybe you’ll get smacked around a bit, but if you stand by your guns, all the noise will clear away. I get beat up that I’m not making Rubirosa pizza, but I stand by my reasons for doing what I’m doing, and I trust that I’ll win people over. We’re in this business to get criticized, and if you can’t take it, this isn’t the business for you.
What do you like to do (and most importantly, eat) in the city on a rare day off?
I love anything Chinese; anything Asian, really. That’s my wheelhouse. As a kid growing up in Staten Island, there was this Chinese convenience store by me. I became very friendly with the owners and my mom could never find me, because I’d be over there eating. I was tired of eating her food; how many meatballs and chicken cutlets can you take? I wanted something different. It also ended up inspiring my own Italian cooking, to be honest with you. I took a trip to Thailand, and came to understand how to balance salt and acid and sweetness. If you put it a little more acid in Italian food, it makes it that much better.
What do you consider to be your greatest personal achievement in your career thus far, and what brass ring are you still reaching for?
I’m proudest of having been able to mentor other people, and help bring them where they want to go. Watching someone who came to me as a cook turn into a sous chef, then into a chef, then run their own restaurant or hotel. That to me is a huge accomplishment, because it feels like I truly contributed something. The culinary scene is tough; everyone complains that they can’t find good cooks. So I think it’s our responsibility to train people to train others like we trained them — then there will be more great cooks around, and more people who have real passion.
But my big pie in the sky is just to be successful, and for me, that’s not about stars and awards. It’s about me choosing my career, and people coming to my restaurant and enjoying themselves, and maybe having the option to open more places. It’s about doing the right thing for the community, creating something that South Williamsburg wanted and needed and maybe wants more of, and being able to stay open in order to support all of the families that are working for us.