“I’m not a chef, I’m Italian”- David Rocco


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Chef Chat: Gina Rotundo, co-owner of Alloro in NYC


I've lived in New York City my whole life. There's an Italian restaurant every three blocks. Pasta. Chicken Parmigiana. Red and white checkered table cloths. Maybe a wine bottle on the table for decoration. Standard fare. What's so hard to find these days is an authentic Italian restaurant and even more than that, an authentic Italian restaurant adding their own unique twist. And that's exactly what Alloro has successfully been doing since they opened in June, 2008. I had the chance to sit down with the lovely Gina Rotundo, co-owner of Alloro (along with Chef Salvarote Corea, her husband) and talk about the restaurant.

Owning a restaurant is a full time job. On top of that, your husband is the head chef and you have kids. How do you manage?

I am a woman.  I will say unequivocally, my family comes first. Women typically define themselves first through their family and secondly through their work and I am typical. Salvatore and I are full on partners, so he and I support each other both here at Alloro and at home. Also, Alloro is a chef’s restaurant; guests are here for the food.

When we first opened, our regulars were happy to see both of us. But, my children were younger then and didn’t need me as much as they do now. When I do work here at the restaurant, it is at night. That means I am still with our girls all day. I’ve always chosen, and will always choose a lifestyle that allows me to be a stay at home mom. My first job is Stay at Home Mother, and then Alloro is what I do to earn an income.

Homemade Fettuccine in white veal sauce
Courtesy of Michael Radassao Photography
 
I oversee the marketing of Alloro, the organizing of events, and the booking of private parties. I can do all of this from home while the girls sleep. That’s how I create the balance; it’s not too bad. The restaurant business involves a lot of hours, but I’d say Salvatore feels the brunt of the restaurant hours.

Living close is also helpful. When Salvatore worked downtown, he wasn’t around for the kids as much, but now he comes home in the afternoon, he’s there in the morning to see them off to school, he comes home between lunch and dinners. He does all of his prep early in the morning when the kids are in school, then he comes home in the afternoon when they get home. So, we’ve figured out a way to carve that normalcy of a family life.

We’ve dedicated every Sunday to “Family Day” so 99% of the time we don’t work. Of course, tomorrow’s Easter so that’s an exception. However, we first come here and eat with our family. The kids really like being the owners of this restaurant.  They like tasting all of the new food. They are our internal litmus test. If they like something, we know it’s going to sell. My oldest daughter Giada is never wrong about something! If she says that something is mediocre, it’s not going to be our biggest seller. She and her sister both have sophisticated palates.  

There are hundreds of Italian restaurants in NYC. What do you hope makes Alloro stand out from the others?

Firstly, Alloro is a family run business. We set out to make it different in a few ways – It is family-run, small and creative.  Salvatore puts a spin on classic Italian dishes. Our idea, especially in this neighborhood, with lots of Italian restaurants, is that our menu is completely different from anybody else’s menu. Alloro is a destination place.  

Salvatore also doesn’t cut any corners in the kitchen. He uses high quality olive oil, tomatoes, balsamic – you name it. All of the pasta is homemade; all of the ingredients are fresh. We get deliveries on a daily basis, hope to run out by the end of the night and get it fresh the next day.

With the menu design, he tries to achieve portions that are appropriate so that you can eat 3 or 4 courses and not feel like someone has to roll you home, which is often the way you feel after eating Italian.  

Chef Salvatore and his crew
Courtesy of Michael Radassao Photography 
Food can transport me to another time and make me remember something wonderful. I am always talking about my Nonna's fried cauliflower and what beautiful memories I have of her making it for me. What are some of your favorite food memories?

Growing up in an Italian-American family of immigrants, always meant Sundays were about food and about getting around the table, so that stands out as a memory especially because I see it disappearing and that saddens me. I always make a point of sitting down with my kids and we all eat the same food. A lot of the moms I know are always on a diet, so they're feeding their kids something delicious and healthy and they're not eating anything and not setting an example themselves, which is kind of weird and hypocritical at best, so I don't do that. I always make sure we're always eating together and enjoying the same food. 

I guess my first memories would be my great grandmother's house. She always wore her hair in a bun, I remember the first time I saw her really, really long hair. It was almost to the floor, but it had always been in a bun. She spent so much time cooking, I saw the same thing in my mother, my grandparent's...grandmothers, because the men didn't cook at the time. But an interesting thing happened when I reached the age that my mother thought I should start learning to cook; I couldn't get out of the house fast enough! I wanted no part of it. It seemed like an enslavement to me. I've always enjoyed cooking from the other side, from the receiving end. I don't like cooking; I don't interfere with Salvatore's kitchen; I go nowhere near it. When I prepare meals for my kids, that's what it is- a simple preparation of food, nothing more. 

Another fond food memory....my roommate in Rome was trying to set me up on a date with Salvatore. I said "No more Italian guys, they're all mamas' boys." She said, "But this guy lives by himself, he cooks, he's a chef and it's amazing." And I said "Well then, maybe he's gay." She convinced me he wasn't gay but was an exception to the rule and that I should at least give it a shot. I agreed. The first time she took me to the place he was cooking, he made me straccetti with arugula and parmigiana, which us a very straightforward dish, but it was perfect! The balance of flavors...everything...it was the best I'd ever eaten. And he gave me an enormous portion because he's from the south and you pour out your love with food and the bigger the portion, the bigger the love. 

Then, meeting his family was all about food, because we went down south to meet his family whom welcomed us with a huge lunch. I had never in my life eaten spicy food, ever. I was raised to behave in someone else's house. This meant you eat what's put in front of you, you eat it all and give lots of compliments. Well...I thought I was going to die, it was so spicy! I finished my plate and his mother said "una bouna fochetta"- she's got a good appetite!! And she gave me a whole other portion and I thought I would die again, but I've loved spicy food ever since. It was a blessing in disguise, because she got me turned onto the spice and the food of southern Italy, Calabria in particular, which is where Salvatore is from. And, just seeing that passion-they harvest their own grapes and olives and tomatoes; they make all of their own stuff. All of my food experiences are fantastic, from the receiving end. 

For someone coming to Alloro for the first time, what would you recommend they order?

Lamb, herb cous cous, laurel reduction
Photo by Michael Radassao
One of the things that stays on every single menu is Salvatore’s eggplant…it’s fantastic. It’s simple, it’s his mothers red sauce recipe, it is the best eggplant parmigiana you will ever eat and that’s just a classic dish. So, that’s my first recommendation if you’ve never been here before. The other thing I recommend is to not skip the pastas. Pasta is  his forte - the boy can cook pasta! They’re all homemade, and the recipes are just incredible. A nice bottle of wine…his food has to be paired with wine.  I would say, look at the menu, the way it’s set up and realize it lends itself to eating Italian style. Start with a glass of prosecco, get an appetizer, his soups are also amazing. He has a different one on each menu. You get an appetizer, a half order of pasta, an entrĂ©e and then save room for dessert, this way you taste a little bit of everything. That’s always my recommendation – eat like an Italian!

People think of Italian food as just “Italian food”, not realizing that there are many different regions and regional specialties. Is your menu a combination or do you try to showcase a specific region? 

That’s a good question. My husband was telling me that somebody recently said people don’t realize the wealth that there is in Italy in terms of ingredients.

We don’t highlight a particular region; he’s basically all over the map. People will ask if it’s more northern or southern, they don’t know. But we don’t do the regional thing. He takes his inspiration from all over and he likes to celebrate the richness that Italy has to offer. It’s not just tomatoes. It’s not just pasta. It’s everything. And you see that in his menus.

Are any of the recipes from your restaurant family recipes? And if so, who are they from? 

Summer Panna Cotta
Photo by Michael Radassao
Like any good Italian boy, when people ask him who his first teacher was, he will tell you of course it was his mother. So a lot of the recipes come from or at least have been inspired by his mother’s cooking, especially the eggplant. The red sauce he makes is identical. It’s always the basic stuff, the staples and the staple of any kitchen is a good red sauce. My kids eat it with a spoon, like soup.

What do you want your guests to take away from dining at Alloro?

We set out to open a place that was an extension of our home, so we want them to feel like they’ve come to a great dinner party, like, we went to Gina and Sal’s and it was fantastic and that they had a culinary experience. We want them to enjoy something that they couldn’t necessarily replicate themselves. I say to people all the time, every Italian restaurant you go to, you get the same exact food and it’s stuff you can make at home, really what’s the sense? It’s like going to a movie theatre and they pop up a big screen TV, you paid for the movie, right?  You paid for the big screen. And here, we expect that people pay for the experience. It’s not just a meal, it’s an experience.


Be sure to stop by Alloro and say ciao on facebook! And if you like the beautiful pictures you've seen here, you can contact Michael Radassao