Danny Meyer Says Yes to Parkside Views, No to Gramercy Park Porchetta Cart

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

As details begin to eke out about Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Park Hotel trattoria, Maialino, we consulted the man himself for a bit of background on what will surely be a major fall opening. There are many things to be excited about (Nick Anderer’s Gramercy Tavern–honed cooking! Italian wine! Park views!) and a few disappointments (no, there’s no Gramercy Park porchetta cart in the works). Still, for a nice Jewish boy from St. Louis, this Roman trattoria — named for a suckling pig, no less — will probably be the most personal and heartfelt restaurant Meyer has opened yet. Who knew?

You’re an Italophile, and you’ve lived in Rome. Why did it take you so long to open a full-fledged Italian restaurant?
I think I’d need some time on a couch to figure that out. This is like telling a story I know very, very well. It might be the purest expression of me since Union Square Cafe. Maybe I just never gave myself the luxury of doing something that would just be going out to play. Don’t get me wrong — any restaurant’s going to be hard work. To build it, to open it, to field the right team — and to execute it. But in terms of what it is, it’s just pure love.

What is your definition of a trattoria?
In Rome, there must be well over 6,000 trattorie, and what each comes to represent is really a reflection of the community that uses it: the community of suppliers, the community of regular guests. Ultimately, I think it’s just as much defined based on who eats there and how frequently and what time of day the bread gets delivered and by whom and what time of day the vegetables get delivered and by whom. The reason that this idea of a restaurant finally felt like the right time and place to do it was based on the location of what will be the only restaurant on Gramercy Park. This is a community that is unlike any other in New York.

You live in that neighborhood, near the park, right?

Yeah, this is where I live and this is where I work.

Speaking of the park, why not do a nice little porchetta cart?
Yeah, that would go over big. NO! N-O. The park will be as it is for so many New Yorkers, a beautiful place to experience as you’re walking to the restaurant, leaving the restaurant, and eating in the restaurant. One of the benefits of the park’s being private is that it remains one of the most beautiful to experience and look at. You don’t have to be in it to appreciate it.

What is it about Roman trattoria cooking you find so appealing?
You go to Rome, and it’s not about how imaginative you can get about spaghetti alla carbonara. It’s, What do you have to add to the dialogue on a great recipe? It gets down to how you source your ingredients and how you execute it. And that’s going to be the challenge and, I think, the fun of this place.

Where will Maialino fall on the Danny Meyer–restaurant spectrum, price-and-vibe-wise?

I can answer the price part better because the vibe never happens until you see who wants to use it. And I think the wild card is that it’s in an Ian Schrager hotel. We’re interested in capturing the spirit of a trattoria, and if that means that it’s a place defined by who frequents it, that automatically means the price points have to be such that one could afford to frequent it even in this kind of economy. It will definitely be less expensive than the restaurant portion of Gramercy Tavern and probably around the Union Square Cafe price point.

How many times has Ian Schrager approached you to do this restaurant?
Many, many times. But when he first proposed it, before he had reached out to Alan Yau, we were in the throes of what would become the Modern and Café 2 and Terrace 5. And then when it was clear that Wakiya was not going to work out, he said, “Look, I realize that Asian’s not a wise idea in the hotel business, because it’s not what people think about when they’re staying at the hotel. Would you think about it again, and this time free up your mind beyond Asian?” And I said, “Look, knowing this neighborhood really well and knowing this park well, what really makes sense here is that it’s got to be a place people would want to go to all the time.”

Will the wine be all Italian?
I think so. We’re not going to focus specifically on Lazio, because that’s fairly limiting. But it should be an exciting part of the restaurant, both by the glass in the wine bar and then in all kinds of other permutations in the trattoria.

How has David Rockwell handled the design?
The goal of the design here is not to impose design upon the restaurant but to allow the restaurant, as a trattoria would do, to express itself based on the way people use it, not on the way it looks. And so what he did a brilliant job of was to dig down deeply on how people behave in a trattoria. What do waiters do? What do they not do? How do desserts get served? How are plates brought to the table? The goal of his design was twofold: 1. To let the park be the park, because it’s the only restaurant on Gramercy Park and probably will be for a long, long time, so let that be a star. I mean, the old restaurant here had closed windows and shades to the park — how silly is that? And number 2: Let it feel like a trattoria that allows people to drop their shoulders and enjoy being with the people they’re with, as opposed to bowing to the altar of the design.

What’s your favorite Italian restaurant in NYC?
My favorite Italian restaurant of all time is one that I don’t think is open any more. It was the original Trastevere, on 83rd Street, which Mimi Sheraton gave three stars to in ’81. I saw these two guys wheeling a Cimbali espresso machine into a tiny little storefront that had, like, eighteen seats. And I started speaking Italian with them, and it turned out they were two brothers who then went on to open at least ten restaurants in the city, some of which are still open, like Erminia and Lattanzi. Their waiters went on to open restaurants that are all over the Upper East Side today. These guys expressed Rome more purely than I’ve ever seen it expressed by anybody outside of Rome. I can still taste their bucatini all’ Amatriciana.

Related: Fall Preview 2009 [NYM]