As Cecconi’s opens its biggest outpost yet in Brooklyn, we ask the team how they’ll adapt its Venetian menu for pizza-loving New Yorkers
Spaghetti & meatballs, baked shrimp parmigiana, stromboli – to someone from Italy, these dishes, served in many Italian restaurants in North America, bear little resemblance to the food of their home country, where beef is rarely served on a bed of pasta, fish is never mixed with cheese and pizza strudel doesn’t exist.
So the Venetian-inspired menu at Cecconi’s Dumbo, the Soho House-owned restaurant’s new outpost, might seem unfamiliar to its Brooklyn neighbours at first – but that’s no bad thing according to Andrea Cavaliere, Cecconi’s executive chef for North America, who will be overseeing the launch. “Cecconi’s customers come to us because they know the food is authentic Italian and they appreciate that,” says Andrea, who designed the Cecconi’s Mayfair menu when it was relaunched in 2004. “Our menu and service will be recognisable from Mayfair: the spaghetti lobster, the Dover Sole and steak tartare served at table. We don’t modify the core of who we are.”
Located on the ground floor of the Empire Stores in the Dumbo area (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), the newest Cecconi’s is a massive space with a main dining room that seats 250 guests, and an outdoor terrace seating another 80, with views overlooking the East River and the Manhattan Bridge.
“It’s a beautiful space,” says head chef Riccardo Bilotta, who began his career in Trieste at the age of 15 – making his way to NY nine years ago by way of several Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, including a tough stint at the famed El Celler de Can Roca in Spain. He was hired as executive chef of Cecconi’s Brooklyn after learning about it on Facebook and getting in touch with Andrea Cavaliere. “New York is a huge city, but somehow all the chefs know each other,” he laughs.
Italian cuisine is heavily influenced by province, climate and seasonality and part of what drew Riccardo to Cecconi’s is the brief to buy top-quality ingredients. “We’re going to source only the best produce from farms in Upstate New York and Union Square market,” he says. “We have a fish supplier from Maine and are going to work with a Brooklyn dairy. It will be lovely – milk from Brooklyn, cheese from Brooklyn.”
It’s a winning formula that has served Cecconi’s well in outposts from London to Istanbul, says Giacomo Maccioni, the general manager of Cecconi’s Mayfair who has also travelled to New York to help with the opening. “We just follow what Italians have been doing since the Romans – using great produce, the best olive oil, handmade pasta. Keep it simple but amazing,” he says. “If you cook a Bolognese, it should be a Bolognese. Don’t try to teach your mother, your aunty, your grandmother how to cook. A lot of people try to reinvent what does not need to be reinvented.”
That said, it’s important to be sensitive to local tastes, says Andrea. “What we did in Miami and West Hollywood was adapt because the ingredients are different, the customers are different.” For example, there is no beef main course on offer in West Hollywood, where the health-conscious diners tend to avoid red meat, preferring to order from the vegetable section Andrea added to the menu. But the chefs are considering offering steaks in New York.
Other changes have been more subtle. “For Italians everything is about balance, but I did notice when we started in Miami and West Hollywood that American diners wanted more of a kick. I don’t know why; maybe it’s the Mexican influence. So I adjusted the flavours – a little more chilli, more lemon, more spices,” he says.
One aspect that won’t change radically is the portion sizes, which tend to be larger in the US. “The history of Italian-American food is very interesting,” says Andrea. “There was a huge wave of immigration to the US after the Second World War, and people were poor, so they tended to do these huge portions.”
But the scene is evolving rapidly, says Riccardo Bilotta. “New York changes every few years. When I first came here people didn’t know what bottarga was, or sea urchins. Now, an Italian restaurant that doesn’t have bottarga on the menu is not Italian. People now recognise the right portion size, they recognise if something is healthy, the importance of organic produce.”
The team expect a buzz around the opening, he adds. “Soho House is a big name here in New York, and so is Cecconi’s. It’s going to be beautiful, it’s going to be crazy busy, and we’re going to make a nice job of it.”