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Motorino Williamsburg

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Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary. But not just any restaurants—those that were overhyped, in some cases to the point of backlash. Now they have to survive with the rest of the pack.

[Krieger, 9/29/09]

Just one month before Motorino's first birthday, chef and owner Mathieu Palombino expanded his buzzed about and for the most part critically acclaimed Williamsburg pizza shop into the old Una Pizza Napoletana space in the East Village. And that's just the beginning of his planned empire. But before it's time to talk expansion, Motorino deserves the One Year In treatment. For this edition, we start four years ago, when the pizza place was just the beginning of an idea:

Mathieu Palombino: The idea came at BLT. Laurent Tourondel and I were talking about pizza, and he said to me out of out of nowhere, "Let's do a pizzeria I'll give you the money, and you can eventually give it to me back." And the next day we started looking for locations. I did most of the work because he was very busy. He had a place in his mind right next to where he lives in Harlem. He loves Harlem. We started doing research. He was very insistent. And when was this? MP: This was back in 2005. So something obviously went wrong. MP: One day, he comes to me and says Mathieu, it looks like I'm going to do a BLT Prime where Rocco is. Rocco is out at the end of the week, and you're in. I was very happy but the pizzeria got pushed out.

But the idea stuck with you? MP: During my work, I discovered there was something there. It was a big business. I learned about the gas oven and the brick oven. It was the first time I was pitting my nose into it. So were you researching other places? MP: Yeah. I quickly realized pizza Napoletana is where the real deal is. So that was where I was focusing my energy. When I walked by Una Pizza Napoletana one day, I was so pissed off. It was like he stole my idea.

And this was while you were at BLT Prime? I was there to open the restaurant and then I moved to BLT Fish where I stayed for a year and a half and then they moved me to Brasserie Ruhlman. And that made me ready to move on. At the time, a lot of guys my age were moving on to open their own semi gastro restaurants, which I really hate. It's like a watered down version of real restaurant, whether it's French inspired, fusion, or Italian. A guy like me would leave a big restaurant and try to do it on their own but not have enough money to do it right. I didn't want to be just another one.

What were your options? MP: I had an offer from this guy to open this restaurant in the Hilton Garden, which is now Bar Artisanal. He wanted me to do a steakhouse. My brother is a good advisor to me, because he's in Belgium, so he's far enough away to have perspective. So I tell my brother I'm going to do this steakhouse and his response was, why don't you call me back when you're sober? That's when you realized it was a bad idea? MP: Yeah, and he said why don't you do something people like so you don't have to teach people how to eat your stupid food. Which brought me back to the pizza. So I went to Italy. I went to Sicily. I ate a lot of pizza. A guy like me, at night I always write menus. And I started to focus on this one. This is when I walked by Una Pizza and thought he stole my idea. You think you're the only one with an idea.

Was Williamsburg the first neighborhood you looked at? No. I found a space in the Village. I presented my project to the community board. It was on the corner of Bleecker and Houston which is now a place called Think Coffee. It was an experiment in business. I pretty much got robbed by the landlord. He said, listen it's going to be no problem, no problem with the community board. I signed the lease, and I gave him the deposit. And then I realize nothing is going to be possible. He just saw me as an idiot from the beginning. What happened with the CB? MP: I dressed up nice, I brought the menu for Motorino, and I brought my CV. I was with my lawyer, who's an idiot. I made my presentation and said I would like to have wine. And people stood up and said this is just going to be another place for underage drinking. And they kept going on and on like that. I didn't say anything because my lawyer said not to, and I'm a little impulsive. But now I realize I should have spoken up. I don't know anything about bars! I'm a kitchen guy. A lady came in with a petition. She said they didn't want it to smell like pizza on the block. I thought people in my kitchen were the craziest people there was. But no.

So you gave up that space? MP: Yes, I lost my lease, and he kept the deposit. Typical New York story. And then Williamsburg? MP: I found a real estate broker, and he knew Williamsburg, and he found this space. I wasn't familiar with the space, but it has great light, it's right by the subway, and there's a 24 hour deli right there. People said, you're going to open a pizzeria, but there's one there across the street, there's one down the block. But I knew this was different.

And how did the opening go. I remember coming in on day one and there was no pizza. I was as ready as i can be. But I ran out of dough, which was such an unbelievable mistake on my part. I don't even get it. The dough that we make today was not made yesterday but the day before. Until you're familiar with the flow of the customers, it's hard to know how much to make.

And how much did press play a role in the opening? MP: The first press I think we got was the Slice people. They had an article that said Motorino was awesome. That's how we got introduced to the pizza world. And the Times. MP:: The Times came in and gave me a good/bad article. But I was still working on my pizza. I was so busy in my head, and I was missing important points. And this guy came in two or three times and pinpointed every single thing wrong. We changed things in the middle between his visits, and he noticed the difference.

And then everybody started to come? MP: Bullfrog and Baum, I must admit that they helped me. Laurent told me B&B doesn't need you. She's going to do it because Jennifer Baum is a nice person. I explained my stuff and she said, "Are you organized, do you have it together? I will help you but you have to be ready." They send you 50 emails a week, 100 phone calls. I don't have to call, they call me. Once they put you into their mechanism and you're all set. Could you afford her help though? MP: She said yes, I'll help you out. She charged me basically for the pen and the paper. Basically nothing. She told me we can only do so much. I can just take your product and show it to people. I said, okay, well I'll worry about that. Are they charging you now? MP: Oh yeah, they're charging me now. It's the jungle out here, and I had to be represented.

What about expansion? MP: I'm never going to be the guy who only wants one restaurant. I created the system. We get a little bigger and a little stronger. I always want to do something else. I have a lot of restaurants in my imagination. Another pizza place? MP: No, it might be called Motorino, but it wouldn't be pizza. Maybe a bar. The success of Motorino is a little bit a part of the timing. Two years ago people were losing money people were losing jobs and they felt comfortable about this. My brother was pushing me to do something affordable. A place where a mom cannot go eat with her two sons is not a restaurant.
· All Motorino Coverage [~ENY~]


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