Interview by Stacey Nield
What cookbook is on your nightstand?
For the last year or so, I've been particularly fascinated with The Whole Beast, by Fergus Henderson.
What do you like about it?
His no-nonsense approach to simple, delicious food. He's also very interested in the entire animal, so the food seems very delicious and very provocative. And I love the rusticity of it.
Which young new cookbook writers or chefs do you think are going to be the next big thing?
Of cookbook co-authors, I think Melissa Clark is probably the most interesting one. She's smart, she's sharp, she's funny and she's an excellent writer.
What about chefs?
Chefs—none of them are young anymore, we're all old. I think Wylie Dufresne's really good. I like Shea Gallante at Cru. Someone like Suzanne Goin isn't really young anymore but you know, she's not old. I love Suzanne Goin.
What would you throw together from your pantry if you had only 10 minutes?
Spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chiles. It's perfect. Sometimes I do it when I have more time, and I just don't cook for half an hour.
What are your guilty and guiltless pleasures, from the food world?
I love gelato, and I'm a big fan of chips and salsa.
What's your favorite cheap eat?
My favorite cheap eat is tacos at a place called Pio Maya.
Is that in New York?
Yeah, it's on 8th Street, right around the corner from my restaurant Otto. It's run by one of my ex-food runners. It's delicious.
Is there something about cooking or cookbooks that drives you crazy?
Cookbooks have all become baroque and very predictable. I'm looking for something different. A lot of chefs' cookbooks are food as it's done in the restaurants, but they are dumbed down, and I hate it when they dumb them down.
Is that something you thought of when you did Molto Italiano?
I wanted to make simple and authentic food without dumbing it down. I really enjoyed the fact that a lot of the recipes are almost so simple as to defy being in a book.
The difference between Molto Italiano and The Babbo Cookbook is that the ingredient lists in Molto are about half or even a third the size. In Babbo, they are very long, they are very real. That's exactly how we make them in the restaurant. We didn't try to make a cookbook for people who don't want to cook or don't know how.
Any current ingredient obsessions of yours?
I'm really digging bottarga. I'm really digging burrata, the cheese. And we're figuring out a lot about octopus—I'm finding all different kinds. There is a kind in Naples that, as opposed to one row of suction cups, has two rows of suction cups. And it's absolutely delicious. In fact, it's an entirely different animal. The problem is that it comes in intermittently—like every other Thursday or something. So our obsession is more about sourcing great ingredients that we've had somewhere else.
Best of the Best features your recipe for baked pasta. We got different results based on the kind of ziti we were using or the kind of provolone or Italian cooked ham. Do you have any recommendations on the brands or types you prefer?
For the ziti, I always prefer De Cecco or Barilla. For provolone, I like a slightly aged one, and I try to buy everything from Lou DiPalo. And Italian cooked ham? I like Parmacotto.
In your recipe for turkey meatballs, do you recommend dark meat, white meat or a mixture?
For most Americans, I would say a mixture; for my house, I would say all dark.
Is that because of flavor or moisture?
Moisture content. You can cook the ones made with the thigh and leg meat for an hour extra, hold them for three days and they are still going to be good. I would never recommend using all white meat for something like this because it has succulence issues.
And what's the benefit of using day-old bread in this recipe?
Day-old bread? Sadly, in America a lot of day-old bread just becomes nasty. Italian day-old bread, not having any preservatives in it, just becomes harder and it doesn't taste old. What I would warn people about is getting bread that's loaded with other things in it, because it starts to taste old. If you make bread crumbs out of old bread that tastes old, then you have day-old tasting, old-tasting food. One of the great and traditional ingredients in all great peasant cooking in Italy is day-old bread. The reason that meatballs were so tough for so long in America is because we were so rich we didn't have to stretch the meat out. Well, protein—news flash!—gets tougher if you cook it too long. And that's the beauty of these meatballs: If you use a lot of bread, they have that very tender texture, and it's because the bread never gets tough.
With regard to your recipe for pork chops, what are the benefits of brining and when you are doing that? What types and cuts of meat you do this for?
I brine just about anything that isn't going to be long, long cooked. So a quickly cooked meat will always have a brine, like veal chops and pork chops. If you are going to braise an osso buco, there is no reason to brine it. The reason we brine is because the salt seasons the meat up on the inside and also keeps it much more succulent. We also tend to be careful not to overcook these things. Pork chops for us are medium, medium-rare. That's 135, 140 degrees internal, and it just makes everything better. I brine my Thanksgiving turkey, and it is remarkable how much better it is.
For your sweet-and-sour pumpkin recipe, or for any other recipe, do you have a preferred honey?
I use chestnut honey, and I love it.
What do you like about it?
It has that kind of smoky, woody, much richer, other-than-sweetness flavor. Kinda like the way chestnut flour smells, kinda smoky. I don't know if you've ever been to a hop farm, but when I was growing up, my grandfather grew hops and they used to toast them and dry them in this kind of kiln. There is this smoky, herby, almost soil-like flavor that comes out of this chestnut honey.
What would you be doing if you weren't a chef or a cookbook author?
I would be a pool boy in Hollywood or Beverly Hills.