Industry Insiders: Andrew Carmellini, Verde with Envy

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Andrew Carmellini, head chef at Tribeca’s Locanda Verde and co-author (with wife Gwen Hyman) of home cooking-savvy cookbook, Urban Italian: Simple Recipes and True Stories from a Life in Food, has cooked at some of the finest eateries around the world but remains modest about his culinary experiences. In New York, he’s gone from the kitchen of Le Cirque to Café Boulud to A Voce, and rumors of “all you can eat’ pasta night” at Locanda have been turning heads recently. We’ve been told that dinners such as these are not planned to start until January … we’ll see.

How is business at Locanda? Locanda is jamming right now and it’s a lot of fun. No complaints business wise … right now we are just trying to maintain and keep people happy.

What made you choose to serve family-style food on this menu? Before we opened, I was kind of talking about serving family style and how we were going to do it, and then we started and it morphed into a sharing concept. I actually bought these huge family-style platters in Italy and then realized that my tables were too small. It’s not really family style as much as we encourage people just to order a bunch of stuff for the table. That’s what most people do. People like to get a little bit of cicchetti, a couple of appetizers and pastas. Maybe afterwards, people will order individual entrees.

What are some of the most popular dishes? The blue crab crostino, we sell probably the most out of everything. We sell a lot of chicken. We’re doing chicken in the wood fire oven, just really simple.

What’s the secret to delivering quality products at low price points? We are cooking the same way I used to when I was at Café Boulud and at A Voce and more higher, star-rated places that are using maybe more high-end ingredients, and they cook the same. So you’re getting quality ingredients, just not super luxury ingredients. We’re cooking to order. We’re going to the market four days a week. We’re getting a lot of the same stuff; just making choices along the way. Instead of having pork four ways on a plate like we did before, we give you a great pork chop or great homemade sausage.

What are you favorite markets? Down the street, we have the Tribeca market on the weekend. Mostly, I’m at Union Square. The green market thing, I’ve been doing that since the green market started. I think if you’re an American chef now, it’s just part of being an American chef. It’s like saying you’re market-driven or talking about that as a selling point for your restaurant, if you have a restaurant in a moderate sense — that is what you’re doing anyway, or you should be at least.

Advice for cooking at home? You have to think ahead a little bit and plan a little bit and don’t panic if you think something went wrong. You see that a lot … something goes wrong and you think “oh my God what a disaster.” Almost any problem can be fixed. I make 50 mistakes a day.

How is Locanda succeeding where Ago failed in the same location? I just don’t think there was a lot of love there. I think they didn’t engage the neighborhood. I’m not going to really dwell on their mistakes, but New York is so neighborhood-driven now. If you don’t embrace the neighborhood a little then you’re kind of screwed no matter where you are. We always keep a good chunk of tables for walk-ins and especially locals. And if we don’t have something for good customers we’ve developed so far, we’ll say, “Oh yeah we will give you a call at home and tell you when something opens up.” We try and embrace that.

Where are your favorite New York spots? I really like Mercadito Cantina on Avenue B. Usually, I’m going to go the ethnic route if we’re eating out, because I’m always cooking French and Italian food. I like PDT, Pegu Club. I used to spend a lot of time at d.b.a. back in the day.

Photo: Emilie Baltz