What would it look like if the modern burger had been invented in southern Italy rather than the United States? With the opening this past Friday of Cantiere Hambirreria at 41 Kenmare Street near Mott Street in Nolita, NYC is about to find out.
The name means “hamburger construction site,” and indeed the place is all about building burgers like skyscrapers, using meat patties, burrata, bacon, Italian cold cuts, unusual sauces, and pulverized crackers, among other things. The logo is that famous photo of workers sitting on an I-Beam eating lunch during the construction of Rockefeller Plaza, and it appears all over the premises and on printed materials.
The mini-chain was founded by Andrea and Daniele Vetrugno in 2017 in Lecce, Apulia, a city of nearly 100,000 on the heel of Italy’s boot. There’s another branch in Milan, making ours the third. While the original in Lecce is an industrial-looking space of two stories with giant windows and outdoor seating areas, the Nolita location is a small den with an industrial theme — there’s a sewing machine and a souped-up bike out front — and a bar inside with an impressive list of craft beers on a chalkboard. As far as what to drink with the burgers, I’d stick with draft Peroni (16 ounces, $9).
The two-sided menu is the size of a blueprint that, when unfolded, covers the table. The heart of the menu is a nine-item selection called Italian Burgers named after geographic regions, most in southern Italy. These are not the burgers of Rita Sodi at Via Carota, which are basically naked patties of good beef drenched in garlic and butter: These are elaborately conceived affairs. The ingredients for the Tirolese ($22), for example, referring to the Alpine region of Italy in the far north: schiacciatina, burrata, smoked speck, fig sauce, chopped walnuts, lettuce, and olive oil.
Schiacciatina means “little pressing,” and refers to the composition of the meat patties at Cantiere. What they contain is not revealed on the menu, but one of the managers acknowledged that it is a beef and pork mixture covered in bread crumbs. The patty is tasty, but a little rubbery, and if you’re the kind of person who likes to see pink in the middle of your burger, you’re out of luck. Nevertheless, the Italians are in the driver’s seat at this establishment, and they are showing us what they’d like to see in a burger, and maybe it’s your dream, too.
My table went first for the burger named after the region of Italy where the mini-chain originated. The Pugliese ($24) is a beef pork patty of about one-third of a pound (my estimate) with a couple of slices of capocollo (or coppa), chopped tomatoes, taralli crumbs, olive oil, lettuce, and a big ball of weepy burrata. Bite into it and the burrata splits open and the stracciatella slides out.
The fact is, you can’t really eat the Pugliese like a regular burger, by grasping it with two hands and taking a bite. It is way too tall to wrap your mouth around, and you certainly can’t get all the elements into your mouth at the same time. Accordingly, you must leave it on the plate and hack away with the steak knife provided, which is an unsatisfying way to eat a burger. And there are eight more burgers in the same section crafted along the same lines.
Another menu section offers four burgers in emulation of American variations, of which we picked the Oxide ($23), which had cheddar cheese sauce something like chili con queso, bacon, roasted peppers, a smoky pink sauce called fume, and lettuce. It was the best burger we tried that day. We steered clear of the Balboa, which smears the meat patty with peanut butter. Still another section offers Saint’s Burgers, of which the Sant Oronzo substituted fennel pork sausage and mushrooms for a burger patty. It was served with fritters laced with capers, called pittule, which were really excellent.
This is not the end of the menu’s unusual offerings: The Pisa Tower has five burger patties and two kinds of cheese for $100. There’s also a series of complicated focaccia sandwiches; a salad with eggs and meatballs; and a hollowed-out loaf of bread with sauce and Parmesan for $33.
The desserts were a high point. Mocona pasticciotto Lecchese ($24) was served in a large moka pot: Neapolitan festival cookies mired in a whipped vanilla pudding that spilled over the sides studded with amaro-soaked cherries. And while I likely won’t return for the messy burrata-bearing burgers, that pudding matched with a demitasse of the excellent espresso might bring me back.