Taking the executive chef position at Petaluma, the recently revamped, 30-year-old Italian institution on the Upper East Side, might seem an odd move for CJ Bivona, who was once upon a time, best known for cooking Southern fare, at Jeff McInnis’s praised Miami hotspot, Yardbird. But in actuality, the Hudson Valley native insists that he’s a lot more at home with pizza and pasta than fried chicken and shrimp and grits. “I’ve always cooked Italian; I’m Italian and worked in Italian restaurants all through college,” Bivona said. “What I never could have predicted was that I’d end up making Southern food for two and a half years!”
So when Bivona credits certain items at Petaluma to his “Nonna,” you can trust that he’s not just blowing smoke. Homey dishes like the Fried Pasta, a puck of leftover angel hair browned in olive oil and topped with a red sauce-slathered meatball, were pulled straight from his childhood — and like his grandma, he even uses old wonton soup containers to compress his noodles into firm, starchy discs. That being said, he’s also taken great pains to modernize Petaluma’s old school menu, clearing out some dusty Italian relics, and replacing them with inventive, contemporary dishes, such as Polpetto Fra Diavolo; baby octopus with runner beans, crispy potatoes and puffed grains, Duck Arancini topped with citrus ricotta and tomato jam, and creamy Carbonara, unexpectedly tossed with Japanese udon noodles. “Changing the whole menu while still appealing to people who have been coming here for 29 years? That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever attempted in my life!” Bivona laughs.
We also spoke with the chef about his ultimate career goal, why he hates white tablecloths and roving sommeliers, and the ingredients he (surprisingly, considering he’s Italian!) despises. What Italian hates olives, right?
What do you think you would have become in life, if not a chef?
A long-term bicycle shop employee. Or a ski bum.
What job would you say really kick started your career?
Being at Yardbird. But the one that got me the most interested in cooking was a pizzeria in Albany, NY. That was the place that put me on this path for good, instead of pursuing a career in business and marketing.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor, and what advice would you give to chefs just starting out?
John Suley was my executive chef at Gotham Steak, and he would always say, “Don’t stop cooking.” That was his motto. I’d tell young chefs to walk into anyone’s kitchen like you’re looking to take their job. Cut throats, do the best you can, and always work beyond what your pay grade is.
What led you to make the change from doing Southern food in Miami, to Italian fare on the Upper East Side?
It’s funny, the course of my career has changed so many times, with the help of the same handful of people. I first worked under John Suley, at the Miami branch of Gotham Steak. He introduced me to Jeff McIniss, who was looking to start Yardbird, and I was his first hire there. When Jeff left for New York, I went back to work with John Suley, this time at Celebrity Cruise Lines. In the meantime, a friend of mine (who originally intended to leave for Miami to work at Yardbird) introduced me to the guys at The Line Group, who were trying to revamp Petaluma. And we both ended up working here!
Petaluma was a neighborhood staple for almost 30 years. So how did you go about updating and modernizing the menu, while still maintaining the integrity of the original?
That’s an interesting question and I’m not going to comment too much on it, because we’re still working on figuring it out… we’re still torn between old customers and new folks that we’re trying to get in here. I’ve literally tinkered with the menu two dozen times; it’s hard to reconceptualize a restaurant and change its menu without changing the name of the restaurant itself. So in addition to entirely new dishes, I’ve added my version of classics, like Penne a la Vodka, Chicken Scarpariello and Chicken, Veal and Eggplant Parm.
If you were to dine at Petaluma as a guest, what would you order and why?
I would order the Octopus Fra Diavolo, the egg-filled Raviolo with brown butter and sage, the Cavatelli with pureed pea pesto, and my version of Chicken Scarpariello, with homemade Italian sausage, sautéed vegetables and citrus.
What are some of your favorite things to do (and eat) in the city on a rare day off?
I live in South Williamsburg, so I mostly dine in Brooklyn. If I were to actually eat pizza anywhere other than at Petaluma, Williamsburg Pizza makes some of the best slices I’ve ever had in my life. Traif is absolutely fantastic; they’re hands down the best restaurant in Brooklyn if you ask me. And Shalom Japan is really good. The best meal I’ve ever had in the city was ABC Kitchen. Gotham Bar and Grill is always terrific. But I don’t eat out a lot. If I do go out, I prefer to have really great drinks, and let the food supplement that. What else do I do in the city? Yesterday was my day off, so I slept until four in the afternoon.
What current restaurant trends can you really get behind, and which do you wish would just die already?
I really like the family-style concepts that are popping up everywhere, where everyone builds their menus around each other and everyone communally eats. One of the toughest things about the Upper East Side is that it’s so old school. My first concept for Petaluma was to have family-style meals, with large and small plates that everyone could share, but that didn’t fly. So, that’s something I wish would pick up here, although it’s picked up everywhere else. I also love the fast casual trend, where you can get good, inexpensive food made with terrific, local ingredients, prepared by a small team of people. Trends that I hate… white tablecloths. Walking sommeliers. Some of the old school stuff that’s kind of dying anyway; three course meals where you eat your own dishes and don’t really converse or share.
What do you consider to be some of the most over and underrated ingredients?
I hate olives and capers. I wish they’d go away. I like the availability of local and sustainable produce on restaurant menus, although it can be quite expensive.
Besides successfully running a flourishing restaurant, what’s your ultimate career goal as a chef?
To buy my parents house and let them retire is all I want, so anything it takes to do that.