At the peak of a successful directing career, Bob Giraldi — the creative genius behind Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video — channeled his talents for creation into the culinary scene, resulting in collaborations with famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and a slew of successful restaurants. After the February opening of Butcher Bay, his ode to Americana and boardwalk food, Giraldi is focusing his energy on his new, “authentic” Italian-style pizza joint Tonda, in the East Village.
How did you make the jump from film into the restaurant business? I started in the middle 80s, before it was fashionable, because it seemed to me that the food business was almost the same as the film business. That coupled with the fact that I came from a home where my mother and father were really quite exceptional cooks. My mom was really quite accomplished; she taught cooking classes and studied with good Italian chefs and teachers. Food had always been the basic language of my family, so that combined with the fact that I was already in the media business and understood the idea of setting up, helped. It’s like setting up for a show every night — the waiters get into wardrobe, they go out and perform as actors and actresses, you get reviewed the next day, and then your run is completely commensurate with your performance. Today the whole food scene is completely different than when I started; chefs are stars, food shows are popular, so I’m not sure if we were doing it right, but we sure timed it right. What was your first restaurant? I was coming off some success as a music video director and was anxious to get into the culinary scene, so we opened a restaurant called Positano, named after the city in the Campania region of Italy. At that time it was one of the few, if not the only, restaurant in New York that offered Amalfi Coast, Campania regional food. There had always been Northern and Southern Italian food, but there wasn’t a lot of the Coastal and Central Italian food represented — clams on the half shell, fried calamari, and all those dishes inspired by the Mediterranean. So we did it then, and it caught on, and then we started a company called Once Is Not Enough because we knew that one restaurant wasn’t going to be enough. What are you working on currently? I’m opening a pizzeria on March 21, called Tonda, which means “round” in Italian. It will be in the old EU space on 4th Street, and Luigi Commandatore, who co-owns Bread Tribeca with me, is my partner. It’s the food people want right now and are buying in the economy, but it’s also very hip. In Italy a pizzeria is a casual restaurant where you can have other foods, but they take their pizza very seriously in Italy. We eat a lot of pizza in New York, but it’s made all over by a lot of different people, and it’s not made properly — in my own and in an Italian’s opinion. We brought in a chef from Naples, and his approach is world-class Neapolitan, which is where pizza is generally regarded as the best in the world. We’re going to try and give people in the East Village a really superior product. Let’s face it — you can go anywhere on a street corner and order pizza in New York City, but it’s usually made by many cultures, and it’s not made the way you make it in Italy. So Tonda’s unique factor is that it will be truly authentic Italian pizza? Yes, truly Italian. This love of food and restaurants has lead me all the way around my roots and back to the most basic of Italian foods, which is pizza, and that’s the beauty of the business. Most pizza is good — it’s bread and tomato sauce after all — but that’s just good, and I’m talking about great. The vibe will still be very East Village; it’s cool, and the space is really chill and wonderful, but it’s about the product. We’ve got ourselves a wonderful new technology — a pizza oven which rotates at a really high temperature, 1,000 degrees, and it only takes about 3 minutes for each pie to be fully cooked. We will serve 12-inch pies, nothing bigger, nothing smaller, and no slices. It will be whole, thin-crusted pies. In Italy, the way they eat them is two and three at a time.
Are all of your restaurants Italian-themed? The restaurants I enjoy the most are Italian — I have three Italian restaurants in Lower Manhattan and Tribeca where I go most of the time because that’s where I live — but I also have a Mexican restaurant in the West Village, and I just opened Butcher Bay on 5th Street about two weeks ago. Butcher Bay is a very casual restaurant that pays homage to boardwalk, handheld, and Americana food. . You’ve opened successful restaurants with Jean-Georges Vongerichten; how did you end up working together? Jean-Georges came to us when we were just starting out as restaurateurs. He is a wonderful chef who had just enjoyed success at Lafayette, a five-star restaurant in a hotel on Park Avenue; he got to know my partner and asked if we would be interested in backing him if he branched out on his own. We tasted his food, and he is truly a gifted chef, no question about it (probably the best of all chefs in America today in my opinion), so we opened JoJo together on the UES, and the rest is history. What are the most important ingredients for creating a successful restaurant? There is no formula, and anybody who says there is, is wrong. There are some tried-and-true things that might work, but don’t bet on it. I would say that the food is the number one foremost reason why people come back to a certain restaurant. They come back for the vibe, convenience, and a lot of reasons, but the number one reason is for good food. It’s more important that who owns it or who’s seen there. Food is paramount.
Is designing a restaurant similar to setting up for a film shoot? Yeah, that’s the fun part, especially if you’re doing casual. The fun to me is when you’re converting an old building or an old space, or you’re breathing new life into a space. I’m a man who has built sets for a lot of his life, and it works exactly the same way in the restaurant business, except that ours is not faux like in the film business. It’s got to work; it’s got to be functional. The more casual and funky, the more I love it.
Who do you admire in the hospitality industry? I respect the success, genius, and creativeness of certain chefs, the Mario Batalis, David Bouleys, etc., and there are some restaurateurs whose success I admire. But while I’m inspired, I don’t really try to emulate them. The successes are always different. For example, my success has now become a real casual sensibility; I’m no longer interested in a sophisticated fine dining … it’s too complicated, too expensive, and the chefs get to be a bit of a pain. I’m more interested in neighborhood-style casual dining. I don’t get too caught up in the food world … a lot of people don’t even think of me as being in the food business, they think of me as a film person. But I like the restaurant business because there’s something exciting about turning out a terrific product and pleasing people.
What are your favorite restaurants in New York? It breaks down by the food because in the city it’s always about what you’re in the mood for. I go to my places for Italian, but other than that I always look to Da Silvano on 6th Avenue, which I’ve always felt is one of the superior Italian restaurants, then Mario Batali’s place Babbo,and Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit (I go where the chefs are). And if I want Chinese, I’ll walk over to Chinatown to a place called Fuleen to enjoy just sitting at a round table and ordering and ordering. I’m also a big advocate of delivery — I’ve seen that explode in the last five years, so when I’m not at home cooking with my family, I call restaurants to deliver — to me that’s become so much a part of the way that New Yorkers dine today. When the Knicks play on a Tuesday night or when there are award shows, you can see the numbers rise because people are comfortable staying home and ordering. And that’s another thing I’m going to try to do with Tonda — deliver a better pizza to people in the neighborhood.
Any other big plans for 2009? I’m going to focus on my two new restaurants right now, and also I’m developing two motion pictures as we go, which is very time-consuming. I have a short film that is making the circuit in the film festivals now called “Second Guessing Grandma,” which I’m excited about; and I’ve always taught in the undergrad department at the School of Visual Arts, but now I’ve decided to go back in 2010 teaching a graduate program in independent, short film-making.