This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of New York's hottest tables.
Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria is the second hit restaurant from Donna Lennard. Her first place, Il Buco, was a Noho gamechanger when it opened 18 years ago. Eater recently chatted with Donna about the wild success of her new restaurant, and how the neighborhood has evolved over the years.
What made you decide to open Il Buco Alimentari? Donna Lennard, restaurateur: Honestly, we always wanted to revisit the salumi program and bake our own bread. Those are the finishing touches. There really wasn't a necessity to do another business. It was more like, "If we find the right space, the right landlord, and the right set of conditions, then we'll go ahead." And honestly, we've looked at a number of spaces over the years, and none of them really panned out in a way that made us feel comfortable, so it never happened.
But all the stars aligned for the Great Jones Street space? Yes, that finally happened. We wanted to get the two spaces on either side of us, but neither of them worked out. And then somebody told me about this space. We met the landlord, and we always wanted to get a space like that with nothing above it.
It's 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. What's the wait for two? You know, we don't have like hour-long waits, usually. I'd say 20 minutes, or a half an hour. Maybe 40 minutes.
Tell me about your favorite customers. Some are old, some are new. Chuck Close, Glenn O'Brien, Magnus Andersen...and then there are the new faces.
How has dining in this neighborhood changed since you opened Il Buco 18 years ago? Oh, it's totally different. It's multiplied enormously. There was not much here when we started in 1994 — just a bunch of crack addicts, and furniture Bob on the corner with his little shack. There was a string of antique stores, but they all went out of business and the fashion businesses came in. And then little by little, the restaurants came around. First we got Bond Street, and now we have Mile End and the Smile. We came in here when there was nothing, and now it's a whole different scene.
Did you get a big bump after the three-star review from the Times? I'd say that our business nearly doubled. We'd just been open a few months. I was on my way out of the country the day the review came out. I knew it was coming — I'd spoken to Pete Wells on the phone. He interviewed me a bit on the phone beforehand, and we did the fact check and everything.
Were you nervous? Not really. I didn't expect to get three stars. But I'm really happy about what's going on. I'm a little funny in this business in that I don't really consider myself a restaurateur. I'm a filmmaker that got into this business via the back door. I really enjoy what I do, but I'm not very connected to the industry of the restaurant. I have friends, and I appreciate everybody out there, but I'm not somebody that sits there looking at every review every week, wondering what's going to happen. That's not my style.
Obviously, you want it to go well, so there's a certain kind of anticipation — like, you don't want to get one star or less. Our last review in the New York Times was in 1996, from Ruth Reichl. It's been like a stigma for me. She had a terrible experience here with the waiter, who was my partner at the time. It was a very funny review. And you know, she and I laughed about it four or five months ago when she was in the restaurant. So, I've always wanted to have another review, because I feel like the restaurant has really grown and developed over the last 18 years. My dream was to get a three star review for Il Buco. But over at Alimentari, it's very casual. I thought, "If we get two stars, that would be great." I really didn't entertain the idea of three stars, just in the back, back region of my mind. Then when I got the text about the review, I was out of my mind. We were all pretty speechless.
What's your favorite thing to eat at Alimentari? Oh, last night, I just went crazy over the tuna crudo. It's lovely. It's so light. You could sit there with a spoon and drink up all those delicious juices. Justin [Smillie] is a super talented young man, and he's super easy to work with. He's also incredibly creative, so it's fun to see him change things up on the menu. He works magic with quail, and I'm a big fan of this pasta that we brought in from Sicily called busiate. These are long twists of pasta, so all the sauce gets trapped in the grooves. He's doing it with these beautiful tomatoes, capers, anchovies, a little chili, and ground almonds. Yum. And the gnudi I had last night were amazing. Little ricotta gnudi with basil and tomatoes — very, very simple. So from the simple to the intricate, he really does a great job.
Where do you like to eat when you're not at your restaurants? The first place that comes to mind is Prune. I really love Gabrielle [Hamilton]. I really love the food that she does — it's really simple, honest, and delicious. I like the Momofuku restaurants quite a bit. Bohemian on Great Jones is amazing. That's like our little living room, our home away from home. Last night they couldn't take us till 10:15 p.m., so we ended up having a whole turbot at Great Jones Cafe.
What's your favorite time of day at Il Buco Alimentari? I like the late afternoon, because we close the kitchen at 3 p.m., so 2:30 p.m. is the time when there are still mingling customers. I can say hello to people and relax without having the din of the restaurant. Last night I had dinner at 10 p.m., when things were just starting to settle down. I joined some friends who were having dessert — we took over their table. You know, I live over Il Buco. I kind of laugh because I used to bring my food upstairs or eat outside because it was too busy there, and now I come to Il Buco because it's the quieter option.
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