Industry Insiders: Roberto Vuotto, Hookah Master

After a five year stint owning the Chelsea restaurant Naima , Roberto Vuotto is reintroducing himself as General Manager of the brand spanking new triple threat, Veranda. The bi-level West Village space is a restaurant, discothèque and hookah lounge all rolled into one, and Vuotto, a Capri native who came to New York as a busboy over 10 years ago, has the substantial task of making it all run smoothly. With his latest endeavor, Vuotto hopes to keep the hookahs lit and the music thumping for the next five years, and the five after that too.

Describe your job as General Manager of Veranda. I coordinate a lot of things — from the opening of the kitchen to the lounge. We have a hookah lounge, so this is my first experience dealing with that. We have two rooms, which right now are opened as part of the lounge. Very soon one of the rooms will be opening as the restaurant.

What kind of food will Veranda serve? It’s going to be Contemporary/Mediterranean cuisine with accent on Middle Eastern. We hope to secure the chef to the Saudi Arabian royal family. Because this neighborhood is really demanding we want to make sure that the kitchen is perfect and ready. When you start doing fusion, it’s difficult to makes sure everything is executed properly. We want to feature simple dishes that are done well. There are going to be a lot of seats and in the summer there are an additional 126 seats outside. So, it’s best to keep it simple due to the high volumes.

After owning Naima, why the switch to management level? In these economic times, owning a place is a huge amount of responsibility in terms of making everything square at the end of the month. It was a good run and we had a lot of fun. We didn’t do as much business as we hoped and it wasn’t worth it for me for the amount of work that I was doing. Thankfully, I was able to sell Naima, and at the same time I had this offer from Mino Habib who I worked with for ten years at Le Souk and Max in the East Village.We started working on the same block on West 27th street when he was managing Suzie Wong and I owned Naima. He mentioned to me that he was about to open a big place and I was ready to sell, so it was perfect timing. I really wanted that challenge of something new and bigger.

Who in the business inspires you? Keith McNally. I had a chance to go to his first place before I was even living in New York. He started with a nightclub, which was what I did in Capri, Italy. Then he went on to open Balthazar and Pastis, etc. so, I admire how he set up his operations and marketing.

How did you end up in New York? I worked in the club business in Capri for many years and I had clients from New York. I had a lot of friends living here and I would come once a year. Eventually I was offered a job in a restaurant so I decided to stay.

What positive trends did you see occurring in the NYC lounge/restaurant business over the past year? With the economy the way it is, rents have gone down so there is more of a chance for people to open without having a huge amount of expenses and people are able to find a space they can afford. I’ve been seeing many new lounges and clubs opening recently. When I opened Naima, it was impossible to find a storefront in Chelsea. Now if you walk around, you see much more available.

Negative trends? Lounges and restaurants make a lot of revenue from corporate clients, but that’s not happening anymore because the first thing companies cut is the entertainment and dining. That’s what happened at Naima.

What do you hope that Veranda will bring to NYC nightlife and the neighborhood? I hope to bring something new, which is a culmination of a restaurant with a hookah lounge but very upscale, offering bottle service. In this neighborhood there isn’t a place where you can have dinner and then walk down a hallway and dance to electronic Middle Eastern music. We’ll bring an exotic element to the neighborhood, not only in dining but also in late night as well. Where you go in New York there is always the same music so this will be something new and more particular.

Go-to spots? When it comes to Italian food I’m very picky. My favorite restaurant is La Masseria. It’s a very classic Italian place in Midtown. I go out to 1Oak on Sundays, and I also go to Griffin and The Gates. Another place that I love is Onda down at the Seaport.

Los Angeles: Mid-Range Dining Is the New Upscale

imageTons of Los Angeles bars and restaurants are running various deals that make light of the economic downturn, and we can get behind that. The cheeky discounts get pretty complicated, too, with algorithms and whatnot utilized in the name of savings: Luau and Il Sole now price their drinks according to daily changes in the Dow. It’s mathy. But a good number of chefs who traditionally do upscale are opening mid-range restaurants, changing their existing restaurants, or joining up with less expensive venues. That is to say, they’re making some permanent changes pretty much independent of the economy. Mid-range is hip, y’all.

All’Angelo, upscale since day one, has transformed from ristorante to trattoria. That just means cheaper food and no tablecloths. Could be worse. Wunderkind Andre Guerrero has turned his classic, fusiontastic Max into a bistro with beer. In this he’s much like Govind Armstrong, who has done fine dining in the past, but with 8 oz. is venturing into burgers and beers — with fancy ingredients, of course. Guerrero’s also signed on with the upcoming Boho, the new pizza/sandwich place soon to be appearing next to the Arclight theaters. And best of all, Walter Manzke, formerly of Bastide, is now head chef at Church & State, turning out the same quality food for about $100 less per plate. And he’s still gonna blow your culinary mind. The man makes tasty food. That’s the combo more restaurants are adopting: fine-dining chefs cooking good-quality nosh for the masses. It’s almost as if — gasp! — they want people to eat their food.

Los Angeles: The Essential Best-Of List

Other places might tell you which food trend was biggest in 2008, or which new restaurant made the biggest splash. But, everybody who’s sentient knows all that stuff already. Which is why we present the five truly important best-ofs here: things under the radar, that you’ll be glad to know.

Best mobbed-up restaurant: Some of the older L.A. restaurants have a bit of a Mafia feel to them, but it’s in a fun-times, Sinatra-style type of way. That’s Dan Tana’s, Musso & Frank’s…the boy’s club places. But Murano in West Hollywood is bringing new-school mob excitement to L.A. with Chris Paciello, who has come on board in a somewhat nebulous consultant/investor role. He’s out here scrubbing “Murder” graffiti off Murano’s walls after a stint in jail and a misspent youth in Miami…and that’s all we know for now. Oh, and the pasta’s really good!

Best server to make you feel like a princess: Maurizio at Melograno. Hands down. Or up. Whatever. This Sardinian charmer has perfected the eye-twinkling accented thing, the stop-for-a-moment-and-gasp-when-he-sees-you thing, and we fall for it every time. Happily. He’ll even ask simple questions in Italian, making the ladies feel international and glamorous. If Maurizio could be eaten with a spoon…he’d be all gone already.

Best use of the ingredient of the year: If we have to talk about food for a moment, let’s at least mention every chef’s favorite ingredient: pork. We’re pretty sure even vegan places were offering it this year. But the re-vamped Max in Sherman Oaks made the best use of the piggy: Kurubota pork belly with greens and peaches. So simple, so heart-stoppingly rich. It gives carnivores a reason to look forward to peach season.

Best fusion that doesn’t know it: While fusion is a buzzword that long ago became a punch line, the concept itself is still going strong: new American wouldn’t exist without it. And the upscale joints that serve it do so consciously. Which is why Kouraku serves the best fusion in the city: they don’t care if it’s hip, they just know it’s delicious. Greasy and perfect for 3 a.m. Don’t bring your friends who think Chinese and Japanese are the same thing, as this will seem to prove their feeble point right. But man, those two cuisines are a perfect dinner match, right there on the same plate in the middle of the night, under fluorescent lights, paired with an obscenely large beer.

Best place to probably get a handjob: We’re just saying “probably,” okay? But still, Tapas and Wine Bar C just feels kind of shady. The all-female servers wear costumes, usually of the French maid variety. Is it cute because they’re Japanese? Is it dirty for that same reason? The red walls and pink carpet, along with the lack of people actually eating, makes it seem ever more squeezer-friendly. The servers sit down, and the doorman tries to assure people reading the menu that “it’s just a regular place, really!” Dude…then why are you trying so hard?