So the Backyard has it own separate menu. How is it different from what you're serving at the Pines?
It's really simple, cash and carry, not a long format, full plate, Thanksgiving-style dinner. You can pop in for twenty minutes or an hour. It's going to be vegetable heavy to showcase spring and summer produce like spring onions and squash and meats that are harder to work with. It took me three months to find a good purveyor for the chicken skin skewers with dashi. It's free-range chicken, not frozen, but it's a pain in the ass to skewer. We'll also have alligator and I'm always going to offer one sausage made upstate. Maybe we'll have a fresh chorizo with avocado and crema. I don't want to manipulate the food. If it's finished with good olive oil and salt I'm happy. But I could see the menu getting weirder.
What about at the Pines? What's new there for the season?
I'm not going to force spring just because I can get English peas from California. If they're not available here, they won't be on the menu. We're growing things like nasturtium, sorrel and borage leaf. We'll have a gnudi that has borage leaf folded into it, so it has a cucumber taste. A sablefish with manila clams and dashi just went on the menu.
You got a lot of attention working for the short-lived Masten Lake in Williamsburg. The neighborhood was not the right fit for your adventurous cuisine, but what did you learn from the experience?
At some point you can fold, or not fold. I could have made it there by offering a very simple formula to make it a success, but it was a personal decision to stay true to what I wanted to do and not get locked into a model.
And at the Pines you're doing just that. The once-shady neighborhood of Gowanus is now thriving, and locals have curious palates.
It's a much better location for my food. I was at Roberta's when they opened -- when I'd get off the train in a desolate wasteland. It makes sense I'd be here. It has that vacant feel, but in the best way possible. At ten in the morning, it's me and the guys in the social club next door.
Where else in Brooklyn does the cooking excite you?
I try to go to Chez Jose once a week if I can, or Brooklyn Star later at night since it's close to where I live. I've been on a recent Kajitsu kick. I've had every tasting menu in town and Kajitsu's is the most subtly thoughtful.
You're a self-confessed workaholic, but when you're not in the kitchen what are you doing with your free time?
I want to do a pop-up in Rockaway, with an all-veggie pasta noodle. It's more work, but it gives me an excuse to spend a solid day a week on the beach. I'm fully confident that you need to devote a year to coming in to the restaurant every day before you take off. But we get to listen to rap all day.
What's on your playlist?
Spotify is the best invention ever. We have an Angelo playlist and we have a Valentine's Day playlist left over from February that has super slow jams like from D'Angelo. We listen to everything from Trick Daddy to Kendrick Lamar -- even Hall & Oates, Go West and shit from the Pretty Woman soundtrack. Saturday night is a streamlined demographic. And on Sundays, you'd be surprised how many people want to listen to Rick Ross at brunch.
You grew up in an Italian family where pasta was king. Is there a specific culinary memory that helped transform your thinking about food?
Anything with aromatics. I was always smelling chicken cooking with root vegetables, a bunch of different things thrown together. To this day it still blows my mind to smell chicken stock. Another one is eating blue crab and tomato sauce. It was the first time I realized you could put cheese on seafood without anyone looking at you weirdly.
Photo by Gentl and Hyers