Industry Insiders: Mathieu Palombino, Original Famous Pizza Prince

Mathieu Palombino is one of New York’s most unlikely chefs: Belgian-born and French-trained, he worked at a fine dining restaurant — BLT Fish — earning their kitchen three stars. So where do you go from there? For Palombino, it was three stops into Williamsburg. And when he found the spot he wanted, he opened up Motorino, his shrine to pan-sized Neapolitan-style pizzas, topped with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Naturally, it took off and earned the accolades of New York’s food scene quickly. Now Palombino’s set to become the Neapolitan pizza game in town, as he takes over tatted-up NYC pizza legend Anthony Mangieri’s Una Pizza Napoletana’s oven and space. We interviewed Mathieu back in June, clumsily lost the transcript, and finally found it in time for the opening of his new East Village space. Here, we get him to dish on his family’s favorite eats, Brooklyn’s history, Brooklyn’s hipsters, and his love of the pizza business.

So: you told me the old locals in your part of Williamsburg aren’t exactly taking to Motorino? It’s funny, because they’re from Napoli, but they don’t relate to that product, because the people that really love that pizza and crave it and have bright eyes looking at the oven, they appreciate it. They’re from another generation, it’s a different world, they don’t really care for it.

But a lot of people do. Food critics. “Foodies.” Yeah, they’re 25, 45, 55, but people that know what’s up. This is my clientele, and also, even if they’re people that are, you know, kids from Brooklyn, they come. The youngest Italian generation — the children of the older folks in my neighborhood — they come and the like it. And a lot of Manhattan people, a lot of those, I don’t know if the word “hipster” is a bad word or not …

No! You can definitely use that word here. I don’t know, I feel like I am one. Anyway: the young American coming to Brooklyn to experience the Brooklyn lifestyle, all these kids, the people I work with, with all the tattoos and stuff — these are my people, these are the people that gravitate to Motorino.

And the press. The press has been amazing. What was that experience like? It was good, well Slice and Adam Kuban, that was the biggest moment for me.

When Slice New York put their … You know, there was nobody else doing what I’m doing. It was just Pizza Napoletana, to do the Pizza Napoletana, he was the only guy, he opened years ago. So one day, we opened with a different attitude, because we’re more rock n roll, less authentic in the way the restaurant is. We have a little more variety in terms of appetizers, we have different things on the menu (besides pizza). So I wasn’t too sure of our chances with the press. When Slice came, it was opening day, and I was so busy I wasn’t even thinking about it. The manager downstairs called me and said: “You need to look at Slice.” I loved it.

Motorino was really the first thing to happen to Graham’s dining scene. It’s gotten better since you opened. Do you think you led the charge? I hope. There are a couple of kids opening restaurants, and I’m looking forward to going there and spending money because I really want to support them, and I’m all about, ya know, as much as I can help these guys, I’ll help them, because I know what it’s like to be starting out. It’s tough.

Do you feel like you’re living the dream? Yeah, I love my life, man. I really love it. I do what I’ve always done, what I’ve always enjoyed doing, which is: I put out as much as the best of my ability, of what I can do, and it pays back. People keep answering it. At first it was paying for the people I had working for the restaurant, and now it’s paying for myself. But yeah, I’m loving it. I love this pizza business.

Do you see anything besides Motorino in your future? Like maybe a different restaurant? Yeah.

Yeah? It’s far in the future and it’s nothing I can possibly … you know?

Of course. No jinxing. So when you go out, where do you like to go? What are your favorite bars and restaurants in the city? In Manhattan?

Yeah in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, whatever. Peter Luger. I love it, because it’s a full-blooded business.

Literally. Yeah, literally. I like restaurants that have a focus on something. I like Fette Sau a lot. In this city, I like BLT Steak, not even because I went there and I opened the space, but because it’s such an amazing restaurant. I love all BLT restaurants, basically. Oh, and then there’s this guy, owns a restaurant. Doesn’t talk about dowers. Doesn’t talk about money. He talks about food. He’s Frankie Castronovo.

From Frankies and Frankies Spuntino. Yeah, I had the meal of the year over there. I had the pork bracciola, I mean it was ridiculously good. It was like so good man, so good.

Any bars? I like Blue and Gold ,,, Lots of bars, I just like to go there, no nonsense, just go, get your drink, play pool, the jukebox is good.

Is there a favorite restaurant that you and your wife have when you take your son out? The thing is, he’s very difficult; it’s very difficult to go and eat with him.

If you could take him to a restaurant, if there were a kind of food you would raise him on, what kind of food would it be? For him to eat? You know what, I like all Mario Batali restaurants. I would go to Otto. You go there, it’s set up for kids. They come, you don’t have to ask for the high chair, the high chair’s coming in. There is an increasing number of restaurants where they don’t have baby chairs, and it’s driving me nuts. I see that, I turn around and I leave.

So I’m guessing you have a decent stock in your restaurant. Of course! You know, I’m an old dude. I have a son. And when I go to a place and I have my son, and I say, “Hi, can I have a baby chair? And the guy looks at me and says “we don’t have.” And its like, is it not cool enough or something? When you’re reaching and you say, let’s not have baby chairs, it’s going to look even more cool? Then I’m not there. I’m not there anymore.

Industry Insiders: Taavo Somer, Rustic Freeman

Freeman’s and Rusty Knot co-owner Taavo Somer talks about his failed busboy career, the proper use of porno paneling, and why he strives for simplicity when doing three jobs at once.

Point of Origin: I moved here when I was 27, for a job at Steven Holl Architects. And my first day was an immediate wake-up call that it wasn’t gonna work out. I had been working in big firms for years, and this was my dream job. And when that disillusionment came, I thought: screw architecture. I’ll do something else. A friend there knew Serge Becker. I thought I’d be a busboy, learn to tend bar. When I met him, he was like, “Why do you want to work in a bar? I have no busboy openings but I have a project.” It turned out to be Lever House, which he was working on with John McDonald, and the designer Marc Newson. Serge didn’t have a trained architect in his office, so he said, “Do this until a busboy position opens up!”

Occupations: I co-own Freeman’s and the Rusty Knot. I was going to throw a big New Year’s party at a club Serge was opening in Brooklyn. The club didn’t open in time, and Serge felt bad, so he introduced me to this space on Chrystie Street. The landlord was cool with the party, but he said we had to use the alley entrance off Rivington. As soon as I saw the alley, the party dissolved, and I wanted to open a café. I already had a concept for a restaurant, and I just put the concept in the space. That’s how Freeman’s came about. The Rusty Knot is a 1950s nautical bar, really mellow, cheap materials, cheap drinks, 50-cent pool table, free jukebox. It’s got porno paneling, you know, fake wood like the Calvin Klein basement ads. The building itself is pretty unremarkable. But if you find yourself being a snob about something, my instinct would be to embrace and explore it, and that’s when epiphanies occur. It’s born from the location on the West Side highway. It’s not beautiful.

Side Hustle: I never wanted to do just one thing. When I was first in New York I was spending a lot of time in NoLita, which back then was really kinda cool. I started going into Selvedge and lamenting with Carlos [Quirarte, now of Ernest Sewn] about the state of New York nightlife, how there’s no Mudd Club. Where was the good rock party? So we decided to throw our own at the Pussycat Lounge. I started making T-shirts. And we sold them at Selvedge. Then we got in trouble, because the owners didn’t know. But they sold out. If I didn’t have the discipline I learned from architecture I wouldn’t be making clothes today. Now, we have Freeman’s Sporting Club. I design suits and shirts. The aesthetic of the restaurant definitely influenced the aesthetic of the clothing and the store itself. There’s also a barbershop in the store, and we just opened another, FSC Barber, on Horatio Street.

Favorite Hangs: Between Freeman’s and the Rusty Knot, there’s only a couple of nights a week that I’m free. I go to the Spotted Pig, because it’s like family there. I usually eat dinner at Il Buco once a week. I still go to Frank and Lil’ Frankie’s once in awhile … I have friends there. I go to a lot of the dive bars that I used to go to, like Joe’s Bar. In London I go to Rules, and in LA, for whatever reason, I like going to Dan Tana’s.

Industry Icons: Luc Levy, who owns Café Gitane. I love his set-up … he’s got his spot, it’s been open for 11 years, one owner … it’s an effortless business plan. Serge Becker, definitely. You could throw out ideas, and if he used it, he’d always credit you. This guy Jason Mclean from the old Loring Café, in Minneapolis. The place had Shakespeare one night, and a gypsy wedding the next, just weird shit happening. Freeman’s got its artichoke dip from there. Sean McPherson and Eric Goode, too. Even though they have a lot of projects, they’re still hands-on and obsessing about doorknobs. When I designed Gemma, I would go antiquing with them and saw just how much they labored over small details.

Known Associates: William Tigertt is my partner for Freeman’s and Freeman’s Sporting Club. My partner at the Rusty Knot is Ken Friedman, who also owns the Spotted Pig and is about to open John Dory. There are a lot of musicians that I love. My friends, kids I grew up with, are in the Hold Steady. I like what they’re doing. Their approach to music, in contrast with what’s happening in the rest of the industry, is really pretty awesome.

What are you doing tonight? I’ll be upstate. I have a house. I’ll just cook and hang out and garden.