A trio of NYC restaurant heavyweights — Melissa Rodriguez, Jeff Katz, and James Kent — are ready to show off their work nearly one year after taking over the gilded Italian fine dining spot Del Posto. The industry vets have been under the microscope ever since they announced their intention to reimagine (and shed) the space from its rocky past under Mario Batali and the Bastinach family’s ownership. Their new start kicks off with Mel’s, a wood-fired pizza spot that will be swinging open its doors in a next-door space that once housed seafood bar the John Dory, on March 9 at 85 10th Avenue, between West 15th and 16th streets, in Chelsea.
For Rodriguez, the former executive chef of Del Posto, Mel’s ticks off plenty of firsts in her career, she says. Prior to her 10-year tenure at Del Posto, Rodriguez’s resume was marked by fine dining stints at places like chef Daniel Boulud’s eponymous Daniel and upscale seafood restaurant Oceana. But Mel’s is the first time she’s orchestrated a more casual enterprise, the first time she’s worked with a wood-fired oven, and the first time she’s led a restaurant named after herself — not that it was the chef’s first choice. “I’ll be very frank with you — we called it Mel’s because we’d gone through so many names, and our architects had been referring to the whole project as Mel’s the whole time,” Rodriguez says. “I reluctantly agreed out of exhaustion.”
In any case, Rodriguez was more interested in what was going on in the kitchen than the title emblazoned on the sign outside. The centerpiece of the menu is the pizzas: charred, 12-inch specimens, priced at $18 to $27 apiece, with a naturally leavened dough constructed by executive pastry chef and fellow Del Posto alum Georgia Wodder. Rodriguez doesn’t boast about dough temperatures or what region of Italy the pizza is modeled after — “I am not a trained pizzaiolo in any way,” Rodriguez says — but instead, she describes the un-floppy, un-gummy pies she’d like to eat at the bar on her night off. There’s a broccoli rabe pie strewn with pickled hot cherry peppers, herbs, and provolone cheese; and a riff on the Italian deli staple frutti di mare, with octopus, squid, and shrimp marinated with chilis, lemon, and olive oil.
“They’re playfully Italian-ish,” Rodriguez says. “We’re not going for anything traditional here at all.”
The open kitchen, housed behind the bar, is not equipped with gas stoves, which means that everything else on the menu — a smattering of vegetables, fish, and steak — are roasted over open flames. Gelato sundaes bolstered with espresso brownies and Italian rainbow cookies round out the menu.
On the other side of the tiled bar, the 80-seat space is full of cushy circular booths and seats splashed in mustard and pink hues. The team knocked out the back wall to extend the dining room into what was once the private dining area at Del Posto. Katz, the professional mood-setter behind hip downtown fine dining spots Crown Shy and Saga, is hellbent on getting the lighting as low as possible. On a busy stretch of 10th avenue not known for its fun, comfortable hangouts, Mel’s is aiming to establish that vibe without the clubby pitfalls of many nearby Meatpacking District spaces.
For all of its Michelin-starred, New York Times-lauded history, Rodriguez may be happy to never speak of Del Posto again. It was important to her to invest in this project on the old grounds of Del Posto, she says, because who better to revamp this space than the employees who kept the acclaimed restaurant running for over a decade? But this isn’t Del Posto anymore. It’s Mel’s, and the adjacent Italian tasting menu spot Al Coro, and downstairs cocktail bar Discolo, to open later this spring. She accomplished what she set out to do — buy Del Posto, and rehire a handful of her former colleagues into management positions, including Wodder — and she’s ready to start letting the past go.
Mel’s is open from Wednesday to Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Reservations are available here.
Mel’s dinner menu: