BY ELENA MANCINI
Often referred to as the Dark Prince of Italian fine dining in the restaurant world, Pino Luongo pioneered authentic Tuscan flavors in the US with smash hit restaurants including Il Cantinori, Le Madri, Coco Pazzo, Il Toscanaccio and Centolire, to just name a few. He’s been widely recognized for setting the standards for the modern Italian restaurant scene in New York and across the U.S. And he’s witnessed more than his fair-share of knocks from the forces of the real estate economy. His maverick style, uncompromising standards and outspoken manner have garnered both accolades and virulent animosity from the critics and his peers. He’s influenced, inspired and spurned many an emerging chef, most famous among them: Anthony Bourdain. He’s also disparaged and alienated a few of them as well.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Luongo in person on the occasion of the launch of his latest culinary venture, Morso, a restaurant located on the southern perimeter of the Queensboro Bridge championing Italian regional flavors with a Mediterranean twist. Its Executive Chef is Tim Ryan, whose previous stints include serving as the President of Culinary Institute of America and chefing at Four Seasons, Bouley and Picholine.
Luongo is an eloquent and engaging conversationalist. His speech is richly accented with the cadence and sonority of his native tongue, and peppered with New York colloquialisms. His responses are generous, on-point and appropriately emphatic. Luongo’s words are firmly in-synch with his gestures and facial expressions and betray his previous career as an actor in Italy, a decade or so before establishing himself as a renowned restaurateur in the U.S. Such biographical details can be had about Luongo from his compulsively readable memoir, Dirty Dishes. The book reflects the tour-de-force impact that Luongo has had on Italian restaurants in the US in a gripping conversational style that alternates between Luongo’s narration and that of its writer, Andrew Friedman.
Asked about his inspiration for Morso (morsel, or bite in Italian), Luongo explains that he’s always been “a lover of Mediterranean cuisine and ingredient-driven cuisines.” He had developed the concept from the desire to offer an ambitious menu structured by groups of ingredients or products that would allow for smaller portions to feature a greater variety of flavors.
Morso’s menu in fact is divided into categories such as: Vegetables, Legumes and Grains, Eggs and Cheese, Duck, Rabbit and Chicken, Beef and Veal, and Fish and Seafood. Items come in two portion sizes and corresponding pricing: “morso” (3/4 of a full size) and “tutto” (full size). Prices are reasonable with morso-sized items firmly beneath the $20 range and the majority of the tutto portions less than $30.
Asked about his choice to partner with Chef Ryan, Luongo states that it was the result of a half-year search. He cites Ryans’ sensitivity toward Mediterranean cuisine, his maturity and lack of an ego as his main rationale for selecting him. For a review of the dishes sampled, see below.
I asked Luongo to talk to me about the Italian restaurant landscape when he first arrived in New York in 1980 and about his greatest challenges in executing his culinary vision and philosophy here. Luongo describes the Italian scene as mostly populated by restaurants that predominately featured staple items of Italian-American cuisine such as scungilli, and meats prepared scarpariello- and scallopine-style. These were items that were alien to the Tuscan-born Luongo. The stark absence of the foods with which he was brought up in New York restaurants, awakened him to his mission as a restaurateur: to champion the regional-local ingredients that constitute the backbone of Italian cuisine. His vision was “to take away the idea of the Italian restaurant with “the flask with the candle.”
Luongo explains that at the time that he arrived to New York, Italian food had no reputation for being a restaurant cuisine. Italian cuisine was identified with the food served on 1960s Italian cruise ships. French food enjoyed undisputed primacy as the cuisine of restaurants. In contrast, the essence of Italian cuisine lies with regional, local ingredients. Therein lay the major challenge for Luongo in the 1980s when he came to the restaurant scene with Il Cantinori. Ingredients that are now considered standard fixtures in Italian menus were extremely difficult to attain. Luongo recounts that items that are readily taken for granted today such as branzino, sardines, red chicory Trevigiano and Arborio rice and that were essential to the flavors and dining experience that he was pioneering here were rare to come by and required a great deal of red tape to procure from Italy. It was more the rule and not the exception, and he recalls that crates of porcini mushrooms would get stuck at customs if they were labeled “porcini.” Whereas if they were labeled “bolletus,” they would often get through. Luongo rightfully reminds us that cooking with extra-virgin olive oil was far from common practice in those days. Today, the challenge of trying to incorporate some of his favorite ingredients from his homeland, such as sweet breads, ribollite, rabbit and chicken liver into his menu persists because palates are not accustomed to these flavors and textures, and the whole Walt Disney factor that perpetuates the resistance to rabbit. Italian and American palates don’t compare. The food of one’s childhood has a profound influence on the flavors which one will pursue. It makes a big difference whether you grow up with burgers or soups.
Ultimately, Luongo states, Italian cuisine is “a cuisine of ingredients, seasonality and straightforwardness. From there one can begin to fantasize and elaborate on it and make it more rich and generous.” As for his own approach to food, he pursues taste and bold flavors. The art of professional cooking in his view requires “discipline, knowledge, passion, technique of cooking and the ability to evolve over time and expand.” Often times, Italian food can be bland. The challenge is to maximize the flavor from each ingredient. The key lies in how ingredients are treated. Knowing how to treat an artichoke, for instance, is essential.
Luongo also recalls the predominant style in more refined and upscale Italian restaurants during his early years in the States. Wait staffs were clad like penguins, he recounts. Restaurants were extremely classic and stuffy. In contrast, Luongo’s ideal is informal, but not too casual, in essence the style of the modern Italian trattoria. Luongo also stresses the importance of the training and presentation of wait staffs. He is adamant about their training and the knowledge of the menu. Ultimately, “they are your ambassadors, and the ones that represent your food.” Luongo is also infamous for his rigorous attention toward hospitality details and low-tolerance approach toward service staffs. Far from a stranger to the service aspect of restaurant business, Luongo’s first job in hospitality was as a bus boy at his uncle’s restaurant on the Tuscan seaside and later as a bus boy at Da Silvano in Greenwich Village. His memoir suggests that his sensibilities for creating a seamless dining experience for patrons were acquired during these experiences coupled with his highly attuned theatrical eye.
During our chat, I turn to the question of his relationship to the critics and whether his penchant for speaking his mind has cut both ways for him. “Absolutely,” he asserts. It’s often served to his detriment. When asked whether he wishes he could retract anything he’s said, “no,” he asserts. “I am who I am.” A critic he genuinely admires is Bryan Miller. While acknowledging that Miller was more oriented toward French cuisine, and has not always reviewed Luongo’s restaurants favorably, Luongo admires his professionalism. Too often, Luongo maintains, the critics focus on things that are irrelevant to the experience of dining, such as the personality of the chef or the bathroom decor, as occurred with a review that he once received.
Admittedly, Luongo offers, the job of the critic is a difficult one. He or she must eat all of the time, often causing the palate to become tired and confused. Additionally, the fact that critics are often readily recognized leads to their being offered special privileges and treatment not awarded to the average diner, generating an unbiased review.
Asked about the future of Italian cuisine in New York and whether there’s still room for growth:
“Yes, of course, because it’s beloved, despite other cuisines on the horizon. Italian cuisine will continue to play a major role in America.”
Accomplishments that he’s most proud of:
In terms of restaurants, it would have to be “Le Madri.” The restaurant was an intersection of a concept that he tried to realize in America with Italian food. To foreground Italian regionality and home-cooked foods.
In terms of books (Luongo has authored five cook books.):
He is proudest of his first book, A Tuscan in the Kitchen. The book put forward his idea that learning how to cook is best accomplished by experimenting while implementing common sense. Cooking requires the development of a palate and taste for preparing food. This is the book that reminds him who he is and where he comes from. “It’s what I’m about,” he says.
Insight that Luongo would offer to newbie restauranteurs to New York:
“You better know what you’re doing before you put your food out there. The New York consumer is very evolved and has a sophisticated palate.”
What Luongo enjoys doing when he is not in his restaurants:
He enjoys spending time with his family in Westchester, and playing soccer with his youngest son.
When eating out:
Luongo enjoys going to any type of restaurant other than Italian, with the exception of pizzerias. He is a big fan of Moroccan and Indian foods.
If given the opportunity to face off with a chef in a throwdown, he would choose…
“If we are talking about Italian food, anyone.” Seconds later his eyes sparkle with mischief, and he says, “well, actually…,” and opts for self-restraint instead, “Let me not go there.”
Following is a selection of the dishes that I’ve had at Morso over the course of several visits.
Raw artichoke salad is an excellent start. The combination of artichokes, celery, shredded pear and frisee lettuce offer a harmonious medley of texture and subtle bitter flavors tempered with the sweetness of pear rendered bright by a simple lemon dressing. The recommended Roero Arneis 2010 was an excellent pairing for this course, and one that I’ve gone back to order at other visits.
The Uova dish is a hearty, original and beautifully composed dish and an ideal brunch item. Consisting of a poached egg, merguez sausage and chick pea fries with fontina cheese sauce it is complex and tasty. The merguez sausage was perfectly grilled, but what really stood out for me were the chick pea fries. They were dense, enjoyably crisp and appropriately salted.
The farro salad is a rewarding and aromatic dish with a multiplicity of textures and Mediterranean flavors that include eggplant, dried apricots, toasted almonds and portobello mushrooms.
Not that a carb-free diet is something I would ever remotely entertain, but if extreme circumstances ever forced me to renounce to my weekly pasta intake, I would indubitably forgo the ban for pasta prepared in Luongo’s restaurants. Luongo is a pasta lover par excellence. He has poeticized pasta in the written word–dedicating an entire chapter on his passion for it in his memoir– in multiple places and at the table. And all of his pasta dishes are sheer perfection. Boldly aldente, with sauces that efficiently flavor and coat the pasta without overwhelming it.
The bucatini al cacio e pepe are marvelous. Coated in a glistening pecorino cheese and black pepper mixture, they deliver toothsome forkfuls of satisfaction.
The Fettucine alla Bolognese are outstanding and represent the consummate winter dish for me. The traditional tomato-based ragu was perfectly balanced in acidity and had a beautiful rich flavor of braised beef and herbs and spices. The fettucine were reliably aldente. In short, sheer, loving perfection.
If there’s anything that I find lamentable about Morso’s pasta dishes is that there are so few (only three) of them on its menu.
On to the main courses:
The sardines are a wonderful reprisal of the Mediterranean theme. Served with fennel, artichokes and sun-dried tomato pesto and a generous bed of orzo, it’s a healthy powerhouse of flavor for those who enjoy the oiler, Omega-rich fish varieties.
The roasted pork chop with butternut squash gratin is a great seasonal choice. Spatzle, winter greens and an apple-sage sauce make a seasonable pairing to the tender cut of pork.
The braised duck breast is a winning dish. Triumphantly succulent and ingeniously paired with hybrid rice, roasted pears, dried cranberries and sweet and sour pomegranates it’s a rich and inspired dish with flavors that fragrantly linger on the palate after consumed.
A slice of creamy Neapolitan cheesecake was a tasty and fittingly indulgent ending to one of my meals. Desserts offerings vary daily.
Each meal was perfectly paced by a courteous and well-versed wait staff, and unfolded in an airy and elegant dining room accentuated by mood lighting and a blithe décor inspired by 1960s Italian poster art.