There are many reasons why the food scene in New York City is the best in the country; restaurateur Andrew Carmellini is no doubt one of them. Seemingly exploding onto the restaurant scene in the last five years (opening Locanda Verde in 2009), Carmellini’s restaurants are no doubt favorites of ours at TNP…and of everyone else in Manhattan. For the few that aren’t aware, Carmellini is responsible for The Dutch, Lafayette, The Library (at the Public Theater), Locanda Verde and most recently Bar Primi in the East Village.
Bar Primi has been a labor of love for Carmellini, who had the idea ten years ago but waited for the perfect time to pounce on the right piece of real estate. We stopped by his new spot, which he aptly described as a ramen bar of the Italian persuasion, to discuss all things pasta (which is the restaurant’s tried and true focus). Turns out the chef is not only a food fanatic but a music guru as well. If we had a soundtrack for everything pomodoro, it would definitely include some Dean Martin and Andrea Bocelli, but for Carmellini it seems to be all about The Smashing Pumpkins and Frank Zappa. Hopefully at this point we’ve captured your attention…
From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?
It’s usually Sunday that I’m eating the most, because it’s my day off. The Dutch is amazing for brunch. Often that’s the time I like to sit at one of my own restaurants. I’m off and can relax and I know the food is going to be really good. I can just text someone and get a reservation, and not have to stand in line and deal with it. The Caviar Omelet and Everything Doughnut for Sunday brunch with a Stumptown coffee is a nice way to start the day.
I would probably go to Ippudo for noodles in the afternoon. For dinner, it depends on the time of year. For summertime, I’m going to say something I’ve cooked in the backyard that’s really simple, as opposed to a restaurant meal. My ultimate summer meal is fluke. I’ll take a fluke (the whole thing except for the guts) and wrap it in foil and put it on the grill with tons of herbs and sliced lemon (on the bone). We’ll take it off the grill and put it in the middle of the table with lots of local vegetables. It’s really good.
Could you tell us a little bit about the new restaurant – Bar Primi – and how it came about?
Bar Primi was eight years in the making. When I decided to go into business for myself, a pasta place was the first thing I wanted to do. I wanted a pasta place where you get 100% homemade pasta and there would be a long bar with an open kitchen. So that’s where the name came from – Bar Primi. It would be like a ramen bar, but Italian. Locanda Verde happened instead, but I was really close to signing a lease on tenth street for Bar Primi. I had the designs done, and we had about three weeks to sign the lease. I had bought the website and trademarked the name, and I’ve had it ever since.
I feel like you could open Bar Primi in any neighborhood. I would love to have it in my neighborhood because I could stop by and get a good plate of ravioli or a really good Spaghetti Pomodoro. I know it sounds really simple, but there are not really a lot of choices if you want a casual place where you can get a delicious arugula salad, a plate of ravioli, and some gelato, with not too much pretense and some good regional wines.
What’s one consistent thing you can see throughout all of your spaces?
It’s not so much the food; it’s just the feel of them. I did high end for a very long time and really enjoyed that, but I got tired of it for a lot of reasons, mostly as a diner. I wanted all of my restaurants to feel like you could eat there every day. There are a lot of options, so you can go and have a big night out or just stop by and grab a bite. Whether it’s some oysters and raw fish at The Dutch, a couple antipasti, a great flank steak and a little bit of salad at Locanda Verde, a bowl of spaghetti here [at Bar Primi], or a glass of rosé and some shellfish at Lafayette; it’s the kind of spirit I wanted them all to have.
I feel like your restaurants are all the stars of their respective areas. When I’m in Soho, I assume I’m going to The Dutch; when I find myself in Tribeca, I’ll go to Locanda Verde. Do you think that’s because of the area or the food?
I think I’ve been a little bit lucky with real estate. It doesn’t matter if you have the burger for lunch at The Dutch, or you go to Locanda Verde for a party, or you go to Bar Primi at the bar, it’s always going to be the same. I try to emphasize that with everyone involved. It doesn’t matter what you do – and I try to explain this to all the cooks and chefs. Whether you make a salad, a burger (which zero chefs want to ever do), or lamb three ways, it has to be with the same amount of love. And that’s always how I do things.
Why don’t chefs want to cook burgers?
It’s the same reason critics don’t want to see another burger on the menu. It’s like giving up a bit. The Dutch is the first time – since I was in high school – that I ever worked at a restaurant that had a burger on the menu. We wanted to do the best one we could do, not to win awards, just to really do one that meant something to us – and not just because we know it’s going to sell. That’s why chefs don’t necessarily want it on the menu; it’s just a burger. Most of the time, chefs want to put bone marrow and uni on everything, because that’s “creative.”