Chef Angelo Romano insists on trying to push a little bit more than everyone else. He first became known for that drive at Masten Lake, a project in Williamsburg that was well-received but short-lived. It shuttered in February of last year, just seven months after its debut. Now Romano is happy and in Gowanus, bringing the same obsessiveness and specific standards to The Pines, a 32-seat restaurant. There, even though the chefs may wear tattoos and play Lil' Wayne, Romano is doing R+D, shipping in truffles and Japanese seafood, and making sure the restaurant does as much on its own as it possibly can. In the following interview, Romano talks about his path to The Pines, the pitfalls of Williamsburg, and what it means, for him, to push.
The part of your career that frequently gets mentioned in write-ups about you is the time you spent at Roberta's. What were you doing before?
Before Roberta's, I was working at Lupa. And then I did some catering stuff with Mark Ladner and Brooks Headley at Del Posto for a while.
Before all of that, I was doing an internship at Bridgewaters for my CIA internship. It's that weird fucking place on Fulton Street.
How was it weird?
It's mass-produced filet mignon seared on one side. Really horrible technique. It was interesting to see how repetition like that can make you not care about food. It was an assembly line with no love. It was pretty clear to me early on in that experience that that was not the direction I wanted to go in.
How was your time with Ladner?
I actually didn't get to spend much time with Ladner. I did a lot of the banquet stuff downstairs and helped Brooks plate desserts. But Ladner is anal and meticulous in all the right ways. You look at the banquet food and realize that they're doing pasta for 100 people and it's still being made with the utmost respect and integrity.
How did you get into Italian food? Was it growing up, or did those experiences at Lupa and Del Posto push you in that direction?
Well, I grew up in an Italian family, which gave me that backbone. I always have trouble thinking about what families that aren't typically focused around the kitchen cook. It was just weird for me to not want to cook Italian food, and Lupa really made it clear that I wanted to always have pasta in my restaurant, no matter what. It's second nature for me.
Where did you grow up?
Palm Beach, Florida. Very, very Italian family. We ate pasta literally every day for 25 years. It was different from what I'm doing now, but it wasn't Italian-American. Very, very classic Italian food is what we had. We would make tripe with garganelli. My pig's foot ragu now is actually a rip-off of my nanna's, since she would make the sauce and just drop a pig's foot in it to add flavor. It was weird stuff for an eight-year-old to be eating — and there was red sauce once in a while — but it was really about garlic and Calabrian chili oil. It was simple, true-form Italian pasta.
How did you get involved with Roberta's?
I was at Lupa, and the dudes would always come in and eat there. I did a tasting for them one night and told them that I was thinking about leaving. It really only takes two or three Restaurant Weeks to realize that you don't want to be in a kitchen that has to deal with that shit.
At the time, I lived on the Upper West Side and was working in the Village. Going out to Bushwick and getting off at the Morgan stop three years ago, you can definitely rethink your career moves. But it worked out. Carlo, Brandon, and Chris are really cool dudes. At the time, there were only a few things on the menu, and the execution wasn't really there. Carlo hadn't really worked in a restaurant kitchen before. He did a really good job and found people that could leave little marks.
He let me come in and do whatever I wanted, and that was great. Having someone trust you with their name on their business was an honor. It was great to watch the restaurant grow, but you realize that you want to have your own thing.
So you were there when it blew up?
Oh yeah. It was a dead zone for a while, especially for lunch, and there were times when almost zero tables ordered stuff that would come from the back kitchen. Everyone was getting pizza. But it evolved, and the pizza ended up being a really good medium for opening people up to other dishes. It's almost ingenious. We were making braised tripe and fried sweetbreads, which no one did in Bushwick. The pizza helped us get people's trust.
How did Masten Lake happen?
I had been at Roberta's for close to three years and got the opportunity to open in this really rad space that these investors I knew were going into. It was in the heart of Williamsburg. You know, I've opened a few restaurants, and the investors will always say they aren't interested in making money the first year and that they just want to do something interesting and cool. But sustaining a business in the initial quarter when you're a little bit down from initial startup costs can be weird.
But I got the opportunity to do whatever I wanted and just went for it. Masten Lake opened months before the other new, riskier shit that came after it. It was aggressive food. We didn't have a hamburger or pressed chicken or crostini. It wasn't Diner or Marlow. I just kind of went for it. It works really well to a certain extent, but it doesn't work well in a neighborhood like that, which I think is based on price point. Most of the people in that neighborhood want to get drunk for free and eat to be full. You kind of get a clear idea of that when Vanessa's Dumplings is opening.
If I'm not mistaken, Masten Lake closed not too long before Isa's kitchen staff was fired. When the news about Masten Lake broke, many people seemed to be saying that Williamsburg is the kind of place that wants to look like it wants riskier restaurants but doesn't really end up supporting them. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, I would agree. If you look at the most popular restaurants in that neighborhood, it's some of my least favorite food. I think Andrew Tarlow is a good businessman, but the food they are doing is a dumbed down version of what it could be. They're sustaining a business model that understands that people don't always want to think too much about their food.
I think people will think it's cool to have a somewhat avant-garde restaurant in their neighborhood, but they won't necessarily support it. They're not necessarily looking for the highest quality or thoughtfulness, which I think is what we were going for. It was the same for Ignacio Mattos at Isa, who was doing some really rad, interesting shit. I wouldn't go there three times a week, but I would go there often to see what he was doing. Not everyone wants, on a Tuesday night, to have a fresh heart of palm salad with coconut amino acid and guanciale and wood sorrel, though. It's a weird balance to figure out.
And it's really hard to sell your investors on it when they're dudes that owned a few bars and want you to put a chicken sandwich on the menu. We parted ways, which I think was for the better.
And then there was The Pines. How did this project happen?
I met the investors on The Pines through the Masten Lake investors, actually. I knew two of the Littleneck guys — they put in a bit of money when we first opened —and sat down for a meeting with them. I checked out Littleneck but wasn't totally thrilled about it, since I didn't want to open a lobster bar or Angelo Romano's Pasta Shack or something themey like that. I made that clear off the bat.
The first day I really second-guessed the decision was when I said I needed a blender and one of the investors from Littleneck brought in one from his house. You could either buy 400 house blenders or just spend 600 bucks on VitaPrep. They had opened their restaurant on Kickstarter, and I just was worried. Once I met the other investors, it became a no-brainer.
[After this interview, Romano confirmed that the Littleneck team is no longer involved in The Pines.]
They have allowed me to do anything that I want. I do the wine list myself, they have no input on the food, my sous chef does the cocktails. We try to do everything, from the stuff in the backyard to the juices at brunch and the events. That was a big thing for us. I kind of bit off a little more than I could chew, since there are only 24 hours in a day, but it was important to make this as ours as possible. We are here every single day doing every single thing, and they let us do that. It's all you could really ask for. I can even play Lil' Wayne all day.
How does it fit the neighborhood, do you think?
I'm not doing anything different than what was going on at Masten Lake — the idea is still to push a little more than is common — but I think the neighborhood has welcomed us. We get a nice mix of destination people, but also an incredible amount of regulars. This is a different neighborhood. There are lots of married couples, and it's not a young, young scene. I couldn't be happier about how it has turned out.
What makes what you do at The Pines a little more aggressive than some other restaurants you'd say are safer?
We kind of wing it! There are certain things that I get that are only in season for a very short time, like glass eel or firefly squid or this very small white truffle. Some of the stuff we can't test in advance, but we like to do R+D in the kitchen. We'll do lots of brainstorming and planning in advance. We test things based on texture, color, and flavor profile.
For some odd reason, we focus a lot of stuff on appearance before we write the menu or work on the dish. It kind of eliminates having to put arbitrary garnishes on the dish or messing with plating afterwards. If you already know how it's going to look, it makes a better end product. You sometimes see these things where you're getting a 15-inch plate and then there's a tiny piece of cod at one corner, because you want to be kooky and hadn't thought about the plating.
How is business?
It's packed all the time. I mean, the weekends are a shitshow it's so busy. We're lucky to have dramatically low rent. The restaurant is cheaper than my apartment! It's really nice to see my friends from the industry come in on the weeknights, but the weekends are crazy.
It's also nice to have only 32 seats. It's kind of that Battersby and Mission Chinese thing, where 20 people could be in there and it looks busy. Somehow there's a two-hour wait, but there's only 20 people in the restaurant.
The markup on our food is dramatically low. It's kind of an asinine move, but I mark things at 30 percent food cost. Everything I buy, I try to make sure it's the best. We're shipping in seafood from Japan, things from Hawaii. I'm getting a ton of citrus from the Santa Monica Farmers Market. The markup is really low because I just don't want things to diminish in quality. We're spending a shit ton on FedEx!
You've been around for seven months, yet the place hasn't gotten many reviews.
Yeah, it really hasn't even been reviewed at all. We got a nice one from Tejal Rao, but then we're basically just pulling apart blog stuff.
Why do you think that is?
To be honest with you, man, I didn't have Danny Meyer coming in to teach my staff about hospitality the first week. Everything kind of takes time, so it's a blessing in disguise. I'm not really sure why it's been that way. But I really do think this is the best food I've done in my life. I'm an asshole perfectionist and am never totally happy with what I do, but I'd be happy to come eat here. That's why I'm more concerned with people coming in because they're intrigued, and then us delivering. If it never gets a ton of big reviews, that's fine.