A Legendary Pastry Chef Returns to New York City
Claudia Fleming isn't sure about the bomboloni. The taste is there, and so is the texture. It's the shape that has her rethinking. The sugar-dusted doughnuts are part of the dessert menu Fleming developed for Ci Siamo, the latest opening from Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG). Each doughnut looks like a flower, with six petals for easy tearing, easy dipping (into the chocolate amaro that comes on the side), and—most important to Fleming—easy sharing. But Fleming, the legendary pastry chef who stepped into her new role as USHG's Executive Pastry Director last April, said, "It's very hard to get the cooking time right, and I don't know, you look at something for a really long time and you say 'Is that really a good idea?'"
It's not only a good idea, it's a great idea. And that's because after a meal at Ci Siamo, sharing dessert is really the only option. You'll be stuffed (chef Hillary Sterling's caramelized onion torta with pecorino crust and fonduta could be a meal of its own), but you'll also want one of everything. There's an espresso-forward chocolate budino, a perfectly pungent lemon torta, hearth roasted figs that are smoky and sweet, and a roster of gelati and sorbetti (hazelnut gelato and blackcurrant sorbet just to name a couple). While traditional Italian bomboloni, which are often spherical and stuffed with Nutella or jam, aren't made for communal eating, Fleming's pull-apart rendition was designed to be ordered for the table—a move that feels right given the dual returns of indoor dining and normal life.
The restaurant itself, which opened in Manhattan West in October, is homey and warm—an invitation to get back to it all after being shut away for so long away. Even the name echoes this sentiment: Ci Siamo is Italian slang for "we've made it," or "we've arrived," or "we're here." Fleming said, "It feels like an exclamation point in the shape of a hug."
For Fleming, who was the inaugural pastry chef at another USHG restaurant, Gramercy Tavern, from 1994 to 2002, this role is a homecoming in and of itself. When Fleming moved to Long Island in 2005 to open the North Fork Inn with her late husband, Gerry Hayden, she didn't think she'd ever come back to the city. But somewhere between Hayden's death in 2015 and selling North Fork Inn in 2020, Fleming decided to call up her old boss.
"Danny reminded me that on my exit interview from Gramercy, I told him I would never work for another restaurateur," Fleming said. "I knew when I left I had reached the peak." 20 years later, Fleming has returned to that mountaintop, this time to oversee pastry across all USHG brands. She said, "I can't really imagine coming back to New York after so long and not being somewhere familiar."
Fleming announced her new role with a limited-time run of strawberries-and-cream scones at Daily Provisions, the USHG coffee-and-sandwich shop known for its maple crullers. She's been working primarily on Ci Siamo since July, but the idea is for her to ultimately advise all of the pastry teams across USHG.
Though the ingredients and techniques Fleming uses in her desserts have changed throughout the years, her approach to pastry has stayed consistent. Flavor, seasonality, and simplicity are what Fleming refers to as her driving forces, whether she's making her signature Chocolate Caramel Tarts or a holiday-ready Goat Cheese Cake with Wine-Poached Cranberries. On the savory side of the kitchen, Hillary Sterling works to achieve those same goals, which is part of the reason why the two work so well together.
Fleming is used to working in a bit more of a silo, but Sterling has been hands-on in a way that's new for Fleming—a way she finds inspiring. The two chefs spent all summer testing recipes in the basement kitchen at Marta, USHG's Roman-style pizzeria. "We are very much on the same page," Fleming said. "With the dessert program, I'm not here to make a statement on my own. It's got to be cohesive. That's part of the challenge, and that's part of the beauty."
Fleming is also spearheading the bread program at Ci Siamo, something she hasn't spent as much time on in her career. In the 80s and 90s, when Fleming was coming up at Jonathan Waxman's Jams and then Gramercy Tavern, New York was full of high-quality, artisanal bread bakers, so lots of restaurants sourced out for their baguettes. But now, it's almost expected that great restaurants make their bread in-house. It's an opportunity Fleming has embraced and, naturally, excelled in.
One thing that hasn't changed about New York City restaurant kitchens? The speed. "I'm getting my ass kicked," Fleming said. "I don't have quite the same stamina. But it's a muscle, you build it back." That's exactly what Fleming is doing at USHG, and what Ci Siamo is doing within the city's restaurant scene as a whole. "It feels like a real honor to be part of the revitalization of New York."