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Massoni's 11th Hour

An inside look at what it’s like the day before a major Manhattan restaurant opens, as seen at Massoni

It’s 11:00 a.m. the day before the first breakfast service of Massonithe new restaurant from chef Dale Talde, David Massoni, and John Bush, and the dining room is quiet. Boxes and boxes of wine cover at least five tables, and a ladder’s leaned against a booth, where service director Julie Gray has spread out a laptop and stacks of paper. Beverage director Bill Riley is milling about, doing things like adjusting a wine cooler in the nook that leads to the kitchen. He’s been there for a couple hours. It’s busier in the kitchen downstairs, where executive chef Scott McDonald and a team of sous chefs and line cooks have been prepping and cooking since 6:00 a.m.

They’ve been working on this for months — 18, 20 hour days were particularly commonplace in the last few weeks — and in the course of the next 24 hours, everything will finally start happening. The ultimate test, people paying their own money, will start this very afternoon.

People working in the restaurant world always say openings are crazy. And a project like this has even more moving parts than usual. The Three Kings group is not only in charge of Massoni, a 60-some seat restaurant on the ground floor, they are also tasked with operating several other venues in the Arlo Nomad Hotel. Bodega, a counter in the lobby, serves coffee and food, and Barlo, on the second floor, is a cocktail lounge with snacks. Meanwhile, they’re in the process of opening several other restaurants in the new Joie de Vivre hotel in Chinatown and their biggest stand-alone restaurant yet, Atlantic Social, which is a 7,000-square-foot space across from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

In the heat of the Massoni opening, Eater hung out with the team the day before the first full-service meal to get a look at what it’s like to cross the finish line. From last minute surprises to what happens in the kitchen, here’s what goes down right before the big day.

11:00 a.m. The head honchos of the project are running late. Massoni and Talde both live in New Jersey, and they’re stuck in traffic because of the rain. Bush is out running last minute errands, like picking up a piece of glass shelving to add to the bar. Riley, Gray, all the kitchen staff are downstairs. Nicole Albano, from the restaurant’s PR firm, Bolster Media, and general manager for food and beverage in the hotel, Mike Pryor, are already on-site. Pryor tells Eater how he’s doing: "I’ll feel better in two months."

11:16 a.m. Massoni arrives and apologizes for his tardiness. He usually takes the train in from South Orange, New Jersey, but he has to go to Jersey City later for a management meeting at the Talde location there, so he drove his "dad minivan" instead. Even with the opening of Massoni, they still have to keep the other restaurants running. Massoni uses the van to drive his kids around, but the team has also used it for all sorts of construction and catering projects. It kind of smells, but it works. "Kung pao sauce spilled into the carpeting," he says.

It’s not the first opening for Massoni. "It’s all riding a bike," he says. "Riding a bike is riding a bike is riding a bike." This one’s a little more intense than the other ones, but at this point in the restaurant group’s life, the partners work with more people that they have longstanding relationships with, which makes the process a bit easier. Pryor, for example, has been working with them for nearly five years, and Riley has worked with them for years, too. Now, Massoni trusts people like Pryor to make decisions on things like how to train staff, or which matchbook cover to use. Non-verbal communication becomes more natural. "You can decide to bring new people in, or you can push the people with you to learn more," Massoni says.

Bill Riley at Massoni
[Bill Riley, scanning the wine inventory]

11:29 a.m. Reps from Joe Coffee show up on-site to do a tasting. The Bodega up front has a full coffee program, and they haven’t quite decided which roasts to serve. Gray and Pryor accompany them to get things started. Meanwhile, Massoni’s zeroed in on the wine cooler nook that wine director Riley had been working on just a half hour before. The problem: The nook does not have storage for wine by the bottle that doesn’t need to be chilled. Shelves need to be added above the wine coolers, ASAP, he says. Without them, people will need to walk through the dining room to move wine from the storage room to the nook. "I need it done," he says. "By tomorrow morning. Otherwise, inventory will be chaotic."

11:40 a.m. A man who’s handling the sound systems arrives, and Massoni moves to the server station talk to him. The team’s running both the second floor cocktail bar Barlo and the restaurant on the ground floor. Massoni tells him that sound for the restaurant currently can only be adjusted by going upstairs.

The lights in the dining room won’t go any darker than they currently are, which will be too bright for dinner.

Next, Massoni wants to talk about lights. The lights in the dining room won’t go any darker than they currently are, which will be too bright for dinner. He’s been trying to get it fixed for a while, but the problem is that the system, called Lutron, has a limited number of people who know how to program it properly. A man walks in and introduces himself as someone from Bold Lighting. "You’re not my favorite guy right now," Massoni says. "But I’m glad you’re here."

Even though the restaurant’s just a few days away from launching dinner service, the lighting guy says it’s his first day on the project. (Massoni has no idea why the company sent a new guy at the eleventh hour.) The man says the issue with the dimming is a problem with the circuiting into the lights — and he’s not an electrician. Massoni is calm but clearly annoyed. He crosses his arms and points his fingers in opposite directions. "This is what it feels like: ‘It’s not our fault, it’s his fault!’" he says. The man says he’ll take a look to see what needs to be done and agrees that it’s far too bright for dinner. Before he leaves, Massoni reasserts his position. "I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but please don’t leave without a meeting," he says. "We need to know what we’re dealing with."

Dave Massoni at Massoni
[Dave Massoni, sitting in the dark in the barroom]

11:55 a.m. The lights turn off in the restaurant, leaving Massoni and Pryor answering emails on their laptops in the dark in the barroom. The hotel’s managing director Javier Egipicacio walks in and asks Massoni how things are going. Yesterday, the owners of the hotel and the restaurant team had a disagreement that led to Massoni throwing a bunch of animal heads into his dad minivan. Although working with the hotel largely went smoothly — they approved nearly everything that Three Kings suggested — it did add a level of bureaucracy to the process.

[the second floor terrace]

In this case, the restaurant team went with a design on an outdoor terrace at the last minute that ended up being a bust with hotel ownership. The woodsy winter cabin look involved furs draped over chairs and animal heads on the wall, the latter of which "mortally offended" a financier, according to Talde. They got rid of them. "I’m tired of arguing," Massoni tells Egipicacio. Instead, they’ll put wreaths on the terrace and will figure out a different look in January.

The lighting guy comes back, and Massoni and Pryor note issues in the barroom. Lights underneath the bar, above the host stand, and behind the bar by the bottle shelves are connected — but they all need to be at different levels of brightness. "Another punch list item," the guy says before he leaves.

The first guests are about to arrive, meaning the potential for a paying customer starts now.

12:12 p.m. Barlo is about to open. Up there, bartenders make final touches like cleaning glasses and organizing drinks. A contracting/sound team mills about to figure out the sound issue. The first guests are about to arrive, meaning the potential for a paying customer starts now.

Downstairs in the basement, McDonald, two sous chefs, eight line cooks, and five dishwashers prep for the debut of Bodega, which serves pan pizzas, sandwiches, and salads. They also will serve the first staff dinner tasting at 4:00 p.m., a process that both helps the service staff learn about the food and helps the kitchen get feedback on what still needs to be tweaked.

Despite the immediacy of today’s events, most of the kitchen staff is busy preparing food for the next few days, including the first breakfast service tomorrow. A lot of the work for today has been done already. Dough for pizzas need time to proof, meaning they started making today’s pies several days ago. (The kitchen’s relatively small for a hotel project, but an entire fridge is dedicated to pizza dough.) "We’re already thinking about the next two days," McDonald says.

Massoni kitchen

12:28 p.m. Talde is finally here. He left his place in Jersey at about 10:00 a.m. and sat in traffic the whole way over because of the rain. Immediately, he starts talking to McDonald about dishes. They’re still working out a cheese plate on the dessert menu, which might have a blueberry component, and he’s deciding that two sauces is too many for the biryani arancini, a take on the classic Italian rice ball made with flavors typically associated with biryani. He’s getting over a cold, so his taste buds aren’t in an ideal state. Still, he needs to weigh in on whether some dishes will work for the dinner launch on Monday. "I want to crave it," Talde says. "That to me is a big part of it."

[the coffee tasting]

12:50 p.m. Massoni walks in and grabs Talde to try the coffee upstairs. "I know you’re busy, but you’re the only other person’s palate that I trust," Massoni says. They walk up to the bodega to sample espresso from Joe Coffee. When sampling, the main issue seems to be that earlier blends of the coffee weren’t strong enough. For better or worse, people have become used to the heaviness of Starbucks coffee on their tongues, Talde says. But the espresso’s being served in clear cups, a factor that may be contributing to the impression that the coffee isn’t strong enough. "My mind is playing tricks on me," Talde says. "If you serve it in the glass, people will say it’s too light." They ultimately choose a blend called Benchmark and call in Gray and Pryor to talk supply logistics with the coffee people.

Meanwhile, Bush is in the bar with a slab of glass he bought. He’s drinking a Red Bull because he only got three hours of sleep the night before. But he’s not expecting a late night. It’s his wife’s birthday, and he plans to leave relatively early to spend the evening with her. It feels adult to him. Bush bartended for years before partnering with Massoni and Talde, and he thought he’d be doing that forever. "I’m proud of myself," he says. "Every time [we have an opening], I’m amazed."

[GM Mike Pryor talks on the phone as John Bush adds a shelf to the bar]

1:05 p.m. Front-of-house staffers have been trickling in over the last 20 minutes, and in the dining room, Gray’s leading a meeting. Riley will be leading them through a wine tasting, and later, they’ll be trying the food to prepare for dinner service. Friends and family dinners will start on Friday. She’s giving them a pep talk. "Officially, we want it to be perfect," she says. "Unofficially we want you to have fun...and be perfect. Don’t worry about the little things."

1:30 p.m. Down in the kitchen, Talde and the crew have gone back to brainstorming the cheese plate. ("Who’s doing a poached pear?" Talde says. "Let’s bring back the poached pear.") But another, more pressing matter quickly comes up. The hotel started admitted paying guests earlier than they initially said they would, which means customers are already starting to come to the Bodega, too. Talde catches sous chef Gus Ulrich trying to grab a giant box of herbs to break them down, and he sharply stops him. "Delegate that," he says. Talde wants Ulrich upstairs, making sure that the food for the public at Bodega is ready to go. "Gus, I don’t need you picking herbs," Talde says. "I need you tasting shit."

As a chef with several restaurants, part of Talde’s role in the kitchen today is to make sure his staff learns how to think like him. He can’t be everywhere at once, and he wants to make sure the top people in the kitchen know how to run the place. "Priority is the paying guests," Talde says. "At the end of the day, if we don’t have meatballs, we look bad."

Dale Talde
[Dale Talde carries a pizza up to Bodega]

1:55 p.m. The Bodega is opening for business, and the first pan pizzas, to be sold by the slice, are making their way to the counter. Massoni, Bush, Talde, and the food and beverage director for the hotel's area locations, Jason Enany, sit down for a taste test with juice company Liquiteria. Talde wanted the restaurant to run its own juice program, and they argued back and forth about it for two weeks before deciding to bring in an outside purveyor. "Both my partners said, ‘Let’s do this, it’s easy and it fits the need. And it’s a good quality product,'" Tale says. "Who am I to argue with that?" Today, they’re deciding which ones to stock. They end up opting for at least a yellow, a red, and a heartier green juice, though it may change later depending on sales. "Let’s not overanalyze this," Massoni says.

2:11 p.m. The taste test ends, and Talde goes over to the Bodega to see how it’s going. McDonald points out that a fridge in the area still isn’t working. It’s important not just for The Bodega, but for Massoni. Because the downstairs kitchen is small, the kitchen staff is using the lobby space to prepare all the cold dishes for the restaurant, like salads and cheese plates. (The team had to order heavy-duty walkie-talkies so that the cold dish people could communicate with the downstairs kitchen. They cost something like $400, Talde says.)

Dale Talde at Bodega
[Dale Talde at Bodega, the to-go counter in the hotel’s lobby]

Talde starts firing off emails about the fridge. "90 percent of it is dealing with this shit," he says, shaking his head. "They [the rest of the kitchen staff] can’t worry about it, so I do. They just have to cook." Apparently the manufacturer had outsourced the installation, so it’s been hard to nail down who can fix it. Talde crosses his arms and points his fingers in opposite directions, just as Massoni did earlier in the day. With so many people involved in an opening, it’s common for people to blame a problem on someone else.

With so many people involved in an opening, it’s common for people to blame a problem on someone else.

2:31 p.m. Massoni says goodbye to Talde and leaves for the meeting in Jersey. Right around then, the manager and chef of the group’s newest restaurant in Brooklyn, Atlantic Social, arrive to meet with Talde and Bush about plans. It’s a huge restaurant. It can fit about 250 people and will have both a dining room and a game room with things like shuffleboard. The Three Kings team didn’t intend to work on so many big projects at once — both the Arlo Nomad Hotel and the JDV hotel in Chinatown happened after the hotels liked what the team did at Talde Miami, which opened last year. And they happen to share an attorney with the previous owners of the Atlantic Social space, people who owned Tony Roma’s franchises. They met, got along, and decided to move forward. Now, everyone’s trying to get it open in the next couple of months. "I don’t sleep very much," Talde says. "You get lost in a conversation and realize that someone’s talking about something else."


2:53 p.m. McDonald stops by the meeting and gives Talde some good news. He’s finally a step closer to finding someone who will sell them specialty pepperoni sausages — the tiny ones that places like Emmy Squared use. They’ve been hunting down a distributor for two months.

3:41 p.m. Someone to fix the fridge shows up, and Talde accompanies them to talk about the problem. Meanwhile, in the dining room, Gray walks around as the members of the waitstaff prepare for the first dinner service on Monday by taking orders from each other. It’s good practice partly because they tend to be tougher on each other than regular diners would be, she says. "They usually ask really specific questions," she says.

3:52 p.m. The first dish for the staff tasting of the dinner menu is ready, a roasted beet and burrata salad that uses garam masala. In the dining room, the staff’s sitting at tables set up in a U-shape, ready to learn about a set of dishes. It’s an opportunity for them to taste the food and to learn how to talk about the dishes and their ingredients. Gray, Talde, and Riley encourage everybody to ask as many questions as possible now. About 15 people — servers, food runners — ask about what can be made gluten-free, dairy-free, or vegetarian. The pizza will never be gluten-free, but they’re working on the pasta and will do their best for essentially everything else on the menu. "We will do anything to accommodate," Riley says.

[The staff tries a fritto misto]

A lot of things on the menu don’t fall into any one specific culinary genre. Talde calls the restaurant "Italian-ish," but explains that he’s not trying to be authentic. The pan-Asian flair that pops up at his other restaurants appears here, too. He’s particularly proud of a dish that’s a combination of a Vietnamese pho and Italian agnolotti, a stuffed pasta. The basil-packed broth comes out in a French press, poured over beef agnolotti. "I don’t want to do it just to be unique," he says. "It has to taste good."

Other dishes, like a Caesar salad with nori, a kale salad with fish sauce, a Brussels sprout and pistachio pesto pizza, and a fritto misto with fried calamari, also come out. The tasting lasts a while, and Talde looks exhausted from talking. But once the restaurant starts serving diners, things will be too crazy to field little inquiries from servers. "Any questions? Now’s the time," Talde says. "Because when shit hits the fan, we won’t be this patient."

5:00 p.m. The tasting’s done. Gray instructs everyone to start bussing the tables and rearrange them back to their regular state. After this, they’ll head home while Gray stays to do things like finish sending recruiting emails and handle reservations. In the morning, many of them will return for Massoni’s first breakfast service — some as early as 6:00 a.m. Most of them will probably be out by 8:00 or 8:30 p.m., though Pryor will be around until Barlo closes at midnight, answering emails, cleaning, and making last minute adjustments in Massoni’s bar.


Downstairs, the kitchen staff has started to clean up and finish the day, as well. Some are putting pizza dough into pans to prep overnight, while others pack away cups of broth and wipe down the counters. McDonald and Talde are still playing with a couple dishes — this time, a pasta dish that’s supposed to be a crab boil in a bowl. (Think crab broth, Old Bay seasoning, corn, and sausage with noodles.) Most of the staff here will probably be out by 8:00 p.m., too, including Talde, but McDonald and his sous chefs will likely stay until midnight. They still need to assess how the day went and do paperwork for the next few days, such as deciding how much to order from certain vendors. They’ll return at 6:00 a.m. for breakfast. McDonald expects the long days to continue for at least the next few months. "It’s all about making it self-sustained," he says.

McDonald expects the long days to continue for at least the next few months.

So close to the opening, Talde seems tired but chipper. "I’m nervous. I’m nervous as fuck," he says. "But after you’ve done like eight openings, it’s whatever. You learn to calm down. It’s not the end of the world. It’s just food." And after months and months of things like meeting with kitchen designers and deciding where ovens should go and looking at mock-ups — work that’s necessary, but "so damn tedious" — Talde loves the opening of the restaurant. Soon, he’ll finally see how it all plays out: the art, the energy, the people eating pizza. "I love this. This is the best part about this," Talde says. "All of this was on a blueprint, on a sketch. Everything, the schedule, the pizzas, the recipes. It’s us freestyling, us talking what we love about food and design. Now, it’s coming together. Now, it’s an experience."

Top photo of the finished Massoni by Nick Solares. All others by author.


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