When the ladies who lunched at Mortimer’s learned that their landmark of choice was closing, they swooned right into the waiting arms of two young Mortimer’s chefs who set out on their own and knew how to make their favorites perfectly. Just a few blocks downtown at Swifty’s, Robert Caravaggi and Stephen Attoe’s serve up everything from a mouth-watering childhood meatloaf at $25 a slice, to a soufflé so light it levitates. The foodie mecca is named after a dog rescued by the teams former boss, Mortimer’s owner Glenn Birnbaum.
Describe a day in your job. Robert Caravaggi: I’m the front of the house and he’s the back of the house guy. We collaborate on everything, whatever we do, whatever policies we have, we always collaborate. We’re the John and Paul of the restaurant business.
You two worked at Mortimer’s forever. Stephen Attoe: I worked there from 1982 until they closed. RC: I was there in 1981, and the story’s the same.
And how did you make the move to Swifty’s? RC: We were at Mortimer’s for a long, long time. When it closed after Glenn Birnbaum unexpectedly passed away, the customers panicked, and we said, ‘We’re going to open something,’ and opened Swifty’s on October 1, 1999. We were trying to be the anti-Mortimer’s, because they always had a reputation of being rude and snotty, so we tried to be exactly the opposite. We greet our customers personally; we’re courteous to them, always. Courtesy is just good manners.
How did you get your start? RC: My family was in the restaurant business. My father owned a few like Quo Vadis in London, so while I went to school, I did everything there. It was a four star restaurant with classic cuisine. I had that traditional background like Stephen, with a lot of experience in French and Italian. Mortimer’s was different and at a certain point, Glen Birnbaum brought me from Quo Vadis, where I started as a bar boy. Stephen and I met at Mortimer’s and worked together for years. It’s been quite an adventure. SA: I was born in England and went to culinary school at 15 at Westminster Culinary School. I finished my apprenticeship at the Connaught Hotel, and from there I came here and traveled a bit. My wife and I had the Four in Hand Country Inn for a couple of years in Vermont. When we sold it, I accepted the chef’s job at Mortimer’s.
Where are your go-to places? SA: I don’t go out; I work. But I sometimes go to Mezzaluna for good pasta and pizza. Via Quadronno is on 73rd just off Madison and the light there is great in the afternoon, between lunch and dinner. RC: I love Japanese food, so I like Nobu 57. I have a good friend who owns Cellini on 54th Street, and in this neighborhood when I run out of work, late, for comfort food to T Bar. They have a modern steak house and it’s right around the corner. I also like The Palm. Stephen and I know the Executive Chef, Neal Myers, very well.
Who do you look up to? RC: I admire Keith McNally for Pastis and his restaurants in general, they’re very authentic. I knew Jean Georges when he was working at Le Regence at Plaza Athénée. He’s quite impressive and what I admire about him especially is that you’ll also find him behind the line in his various establishments. He’s somebody you can look up to. He keeps his chops like all great chefs. When they stop doing that, they lose touch with the core of this business.
What’s the core of your business? SA: The core is the kitchen, but Robert and I are here all the time and we keep in touch with the staff, the customers, and we’re very connected with both groups of people; we’re not married to each other, but we’re married to the business. RC: Were considering expansion and the thing we fear most is being separated from our flagship for too long and how that would affect our customers, the service and everything that goes on? I’d love to know how those guys with lots of restaurants hold their standards.
Anything that annoys you? SA: The way the city government is meddling in small businesses and the way they handle them is negative. Small business is an open wallet for the government, penalizing them for petty violations that are often questionable — from trash pick-up to health violations to fire marshal inspections. They’re all designed to raise capital for the government. It puts pressure on every business. The LLC license, liquor license, all of that can be streamlined. The grading system is fine, there should be a guide to health, but the government is increasing inspections to twice a year which is just another tax-small-businesses reason to go to the well so often before businesses start to fail. RC: They put a lot of pressure on you, but that’s New York, so you’ve got to have thick skin.
Something that people don’t know about you? RC: I’m also a musician. I write pop songs, but I used to have a rock band in the ’80s. It was a hobby, but a fun one. SA: I’m a gardener, a hunter and a marathoner.