"Perfectionism!! Next time I can make it better."-Chef Tony
Interviewed by Kimberly di Bonaventura
"One Christmas holiday, I cooked for 30 people. The captain of the Army came over, “what is this smell?” I was making Potato and Onion Crusted Leg of Lamb that tasted so delicious. The next day I was only cooking for the Officers."
You are opening a new restaurant, how exciting. Where exactly? "In Santa Monica on Lincoln and Pacific…2127 Lincoln Blvd. It’s a different concept to Barrique. It’s gonna be more casual and family friendly. I am naming it after my first restaurant, ‘Piccolo’."
Still Italian? "Si, si, Italian still, Italian still. No reservation; first come first serve. Small. My partner Tony Black, and I are reviving ‘Piccolo’. At Piccolo, I had the line, outside, on the street for hours, you know. People were waiting for tables. Come in and put your name down. Food is gonna be awesome. Unbelievable, you know. But not the same level as Barrique. It’s gonna be…" Approachable? "Approachable! Family friendly and affordable. It’s gonna be a concept that can be reproduced." Like a chain? "Yes…three…maybe four! Five or six! Maybe Venice, Santa Monica, Valley, Downtown, you know." Is there an outdoor space? So important now and possibly forever. "Oh yes, we’re working on a beautiful patio for our outdoor dining experience. And take-out and delivery is now part of our business plan."
Valet parking? "We’ll have valet and plenty of street parking. Owning a restaurant is not only about the recipes or the menu. Barrique has been open for 10 yrs. It is the ambiance; the waiters; the same people who come here; the relationship that is established between the customers, staff and owners. It becomes a communal family…it feels incredible!" I say this all the time: there’s synergistic art and there’s solo art. For example, solo art is a person working alone with a canvas….and there’s synergistic art: like movies, television, food. It takes a team, a community, a family of sorts. "Definitely!" I was concerned that you were planning on opening a new restaurant during Covid. What’s the approach, what’s your plan? How do you create a buzz and get people into a newly opened restaurant during a pandemic?
Tony Black (Chef Tony's partner) answers:
"It’s all about bringing awareness. When Covid happened and our City was on Lockdown, we were shut down. Slight panic ensued. So, I scrambled, did research on e-mail marketing and stayed up all night reorganizing our business model to incorporate take-out and delivery service. Thankfully, we found that our community came out to support us. They love our food and didn’t want to be without it! It was amazing. I mean…I even transitioned our website for e-commerce to start selling meats, olive oils and truffle oils. Social media IS King and I had to figure out how to navigate that world to better exploit our products."
That’s impressive, not only impressive but inspired...So Tony, let’s start with your childhood. "I was born in Sicily and I grew up in Parma with Sicilian parents and you know a Sicilian family is a big family; so my culinary experience start since I was like…" In the womb? HA "Heh, no..close...close to the womb. Sunday meals with my Mom, my aunt, my cousin; we all lived in Parma and every Sunday we meet together! So, I started early in the morning. Braising the sauce. Make the Bolognese."
How old are you right there? "When I was helping cooking? Five…six years…I was around all day. So, you know small hand was closing the ravioli, flipping food with a fork, stirring the sauce, me on top of the chairs with a spoon.".
Aunt was sweet, and Mamma was savory. "Yes." Sweet & Savory, like our magazine (laughs) "My mom, she was good with seafood you know, Calamari, the Seafood Cioppino…but Sicilian style. Spaghetti with seafood. Black squid pasta and Black Squid Risotto." All made by hand? "All made by hand; all start from scratch every morning. Clean up the kitchen, pull out the stuff and start cooking. Cutting, chopping, steaming. And the lunch we start at like 1:30, and we get out the table like 5:30/6. It was lunch/dinner altogether, was the whole Sunday."
How beautiful. Let me ask how you were procuring your proteins and vegetables? Are you raising cattle for dairy needs? Growing vegetables? Were you butchering, fishing? Or were items shopped? "I grew up in Parma, in North Italy. We were shopping. Very proper and strict. But my Mom and my Father, they are from Sicily, so every summer when the school ends, we’d go back to Sicily. Sicily is different, more casual and family friendly. We had the ocean and the countryside and the famous Pacino tomato. All of Italy loves this special tomato for its unique taste. So we used to go picking tomatoes, onions and fruits in the Countryside. I mean, my Grandpa used to own big big land there. They were producing Olive Oil for all of Northern Italy from the farmer next door. My cousins were fishermen, so they brought tuna; scampi; the best seafood and the best shrimp. We are famous for shrimp in my town; the deep sea scrape; they’d drop 300 meters underground where the best flavor can be found. The real Langostino." What do you mean the real Langostino? What’s the fake?! What’s the real? I’m confused. (laughs) "In the Caribbean … what they call scampi… are really just shrimps. In Italy, the scampi are real, they have the sweet flavor." So, if I get this right, you were raised in Parma? There, you shopped and learned strict cooking knowledge and techniques. And you would vacation every summer in Sicily where it’s far more casual and you would do your own fishing. "Yeah, three months every year in Sicily; I go spearfishing by myself. I love fishing." And how old are you? "10, 12. I was in the water all day, all night and my older cousins used to have big big fishing boat. On Sunday we would go there to clean the nets, drink some beer, and fish. Spearfishing with masks and fins…No lobster pots or fishing poles or scuba gear." That’s sounds like a great youth. "Yeah….and you know, where I grew up, my small town was amazing because there was the guy with the chicken making the eggs coming on the little scooter into the city and screaming, ‘Uova uova’! (eggs eggs). A dozen eggs, they’re still warm from the chicken, they’re beautiful. The other guy come with a little old truck and start screaming, ‘Ricotti ricotti’! He’s outside with the container and they give you the ricotta still warm, just made a few hours ago you know. Everything was so fresh." That’s gorgeous. "I remember my Grandma used to wake me up with cheese ricotta, the one for the Cannoli. We just put it out on the plate with sugar and cocoa powder on top. That was my breakfast (laughs). Warm cheese ricotta made a few hours earlier. So that’s the incredible part of Sicily. The flavor of the ingredients that were unique. My Mom and sister used to jar tomatoes. A little machine would peel the tomatoes, separate the seeds on one side and pulp on the other. Add a little basil, bottle it, put it inside water in a drum. You boil the water; let it cool down and you have the conserve. We made conserve for the whole winter and shipped it back to Parma to have fresh tomato sauce made in Sicily." What year you were born? "1970." Did the Mafia mess with your family, farming or food? "They were too far away (laughs)." Ok, I get the family; the cooking; the fishing. And how does the family make money? "My father used to work in leather. Fur in North Italy; leather jackets for men; fur for women. He used to manage a leather company." A lot of leather in Italy. Beautiful leathers. "Yeah, especially in Parma. Wonderful shoes. When I was little, I used to go to Milano and Florence to see the fashion stuff there. My father had his own leather shop. He saw I was in love with cooking so sold his leather shop and he bought a gourmet store selling the best prosciutto, salami, all the cold cuts. But I didn’t like it." You didn’t like it?! "I didn’t like it. (laughing) We had the best cold cuts and all the cheeses. My father did all that for me but I didn’t like it or want it. So, I started traveling as a chef. (laughs) ‘Gotta go!’"
Kind of a dick move, hahaha or shall I say, young stud. Gotta go, be free. I do get that. And where’d you go to culinary school?
"Istituto Alberghiero “Magnaghi” di Salso Maggiore Terme. One of the top three school in Italy, near Parma. Every summer this famous chef in Milano would take 4-5 guys during the summer to cook over there. He picked me at 14 years old and another 3 guys we went there all summer. My first job was counting and peeling potatoes and making 6 and 8 point shapes."
That’s all you did? Potatoes? "Only the potatoes."
I want to see you do that. "I have a picture of me at 13 years old the first time I dress as a cook. I look like a melon with a big head. In Italy, culinary school is part of High School, you do it after middle school. Cooking classes twice a week. Once in the morning and pastry in the afternoon. It’s a full school day, 8 hours. I was taking the train at 6:20 in the morning and coming home at 5 o’clock in the evening." Long day "Long, long days. I do some sport, get home for dinner and crash. 6:20am start again. School was so intense. I was the man with the suitcase. During summer and the high season, I’d go to South America and traveled from job to job. During the Winter; ski season I’d go to the Dolomites. It was phenomenal. The Aspen of Italy - rich people, beautiful hotels and incredible restaurants."
A travelling chef, South America, Parma, Sicily and the Dolomites? Not bad "When I was in the Army…" You were in the Army? "Yeah, in Italy you have to do one year, I cooked for the troops….1800 people! One Christmas holiday, I cooked for 30 people. The captain of the army came over, “what is this smell?” I was making Potato and Onion Crusted Leg of Lamb that tasted so delicious. The next day I was only cooking for the Officer’s." No doubt! They loved you! (laughs) "Then a month later a General came to visit and the officers boasted about this amazing chef from Parma. He came to the kitchen, tasted my food and the next thing you know I am back in Parma cooking for the General." You gotta be kidding! Back home you go! OK, who is or are your mentor(s)? "The best chef I ever worked with was this woman Lina Melon at Meloncino, it's a Michelin star restaurant in Cortinadampezzo. She won the award as the best female Italian chef by the academic of culinary cuisines of Italy. At that time in the 90’s there no women, now there are more and more."
When did you come to the States? "1995 and worked at Il Moro in Santa Monica as the Executive Chef."
"Yes…show a little love! I was taking care of this motherfuckers’ restaurant and he was never there. So, I left and went to Valentino in Las Vegas."
And you met your beautiful wife then? Francesca? "We started working together in 1998/1999 but started dating five years later. Then from 1995 to 2000 I worked at Il Moro, which was rated one of the top restaurants, by Zagat. After that, I worked at Locanda Veneta for a year and a half when I got in a fight with the boss. I deserved a raise. I was Chef; managing the restaurant; bringing food costs down while he was away travelling for 2 and 3 months at a time." Show a little love. "Yes…show a little love! I was taking care of this motherfuckers’ restaurant and he was never there. So, I left and went to Valentino in Las Vegas." I didn’t know you cheffed in Vegas. "Piero Selvaggio, the owner of Valentino’s was from my hometown. He knew my father, our family store. We began a relationship and a few months later I asked him if he needed a chef? He’s like, “woah - you – really? What happened?” I’m leaving. Okay, he said, I’ll open a new restaurant in Las Vegas." What was that called? "Cafe Giorgio. Piero was looking for an executive chef at Café Giorgio…but he gave me the choice of working at Valentino or Café Giorgio. My dream was to work at the best Italian restaurant and at that time it was Valentino. So, he moved the executive chef from Valentino to Cafe Giorgio and I became the Executive Chef at Valentino working directly under Luciano Pellegrine. A dream come true. I was working there when he got the James Beard Award. There I was, working for the one of the best chef’s in the United States having just received the James Beard…that gave me a big kick to open ‘Piccolo’ my very own and first restaurant." Right now, in this moment. Who would be your ideal mentors and/or chefs you truly admire. "Lina Melon and Luciano Pellegrine." I love how loyal you are. Any other chefs you admire that you have not worked with? "Thomas Keller; his books are phenomenal in the way he teaches his recipes; they are good." Who doesn’t love The French Laundry?
to Tony Black: Can you cook? "No! I can’t cook (laughs) he’s the talent, I run business affairs, it’s the perfect partnership." So, how long were you at Piccolo? "We did Piccolo in 2004. I opened Barrique and Wilson in 2005. So, I had three restaurants in three years. Wilson, I opened with Mike Wilson, Chef Mikey. He was Dennis Wilson’s son...from the Beach Boys." Fun! That’s nuts! Did you achieve any awards during that time? "2006 Piccolo was the best Italian restaurant by Zagat and best new restaurant by Zagat and in 2006, A Michelin star by the Michelin Guide!" 2006 you got your first Michelin Star? "Yes one Michelin."
Talented and Fancy. You’re on fire! You’re your own man, your own restaurants, getting stars, getting
recognition. People saying you’re the best! Then what? "Well, I split with my partners and gave up all the restaurants and started on my own again and opened Ado with Paolo in 2009. Paolo left for Mexico and Tony Black and I started Barrique 5 years ago.
Chef Tony with partner, Tony Black at Barrique, in Santa Monica
Right, I think I’m caught up. We circle back to the beginning. It’s all about Piccolo now.
"Yes, so I’m hoping these restaurants are my retirement plan. We wanna open four, five or six Piccolo’s. Have a centralized kitchen. So there is a familiarity with the product. With a centralized kitchen you make all the sauce, all the dressing, all the pastry."
It’s the same.
"And the pasta. And you ship it to all the restaurants. The most important part of the kitchen is the prep. If you have bad sauce, you’re serving bad shit. I make sure the pasta and the sauce is perfect. The restaurants heat the pasta, strain it, butter, parmesan cheese, salted and put it on a plate. Look nice, garnish, cracked pepper, finish with olive oil and send it out. Beautiful. That’s my idea."
An upscale chain. And you wanna stay mainly in Los Angeles?
"Ummm probably for now yes: South Bay, Valley, Downtown LA. An hour and a half drive from a centralized kitchen. You know Barrique reviews are unique for Barrique. Not everyone will love my quail, rabbit or wild boar pasta. Some say, “yuck yuck yuck.”"
I do believe you belong downtown. No one would say “Yuck yuck yuck” there.
"We will see, for now I am focusing on Piccolo."
I like it! I like it! I wish you all the luck, love and success.
10 FACTS ABOUT CHEF TONY
He once got his Ducati up to 180mph riding to Vegas and got arrested.
He loves fishing, catching and prepping fish.
He loves sunglasses.
He is obsessed with Star Wars.
Favorite Movie Quote from SNATCH, “Yes, London, You know Fish and Chips, cup o’ tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary Fuckin’ Poppins, London!”
Has a passion for gardening.
Favorite Musician: Mick Jagger, who he cooked for twice. (Opened a closed kitchen exclusively for Mick).
Gets an endorphin high from the process of opening a restaurant…banging pots, clanging silverware…the final product! All Music to my ears.
Loves the Ocean.
Loves Wine and Food Italian style. Once sat down at lunch and didn’t get up till after dinner.
Bonus Fact: Kazunori Nozawa is Chef Tony's favorite chef outside himself. Give me Sushi!