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.