The New Face of Four-Star Italian Cooking
We are living in a golden age of pasta.
For the last couple of years, various forms of la cucina Italiana have powered more new restaurants than any other. Here in New York, from the spicy vodka rigatoni at Carbone to the pink peppercorn malfadini at Lilia, Italian food—specifically, pasta—has become incongruously the food in this gluten-free environment that chefs work hardest on, gets the most buzz, and garners the most outrageous play on social media.
If we were handing out awards for Pasta King of New York, the winner would be Mark Ladner. Since 2005, he’s been the chef at Mario Batali’s fine-dining temple, Del Posto, the city’s first four-star Italian restaurant in recent history and one with $20 million annually in sales. Now Ladner is leaving to focus on a fast-casual concept, appropriately called Pasta Flyer.
Stepping into his very big shoes is Melissa Rodriguez. Previously Del Posto’s chef de cuisine and a six-year veteran of that gleaming, 10,000-square-foot kitchen, the 37-year-old, soft-spoken Rodriguez officially took over the restaurant’s head chef job earlier this month.
“Melissa is a chef’s chef,” Batali said via e-mail. “She is studied and thoughtful, a meticulous practitioner of the cooking arts. Mel demonstrates and underlines why more women should be leading our kitchens.”
A former boss of Rodriguez had additional praise: "She has an amazing drive and passion for cooking," said Daniel Boulud. "I'm proud to witness her become the first woman chef managing a four-star kitchen in New York."
She officially introduces her new menu on Feb. 15, but for Del Posto regulars, it won’t be completely unfamiliar.
“I didn’t want to burn the place down,” said Rodriguez, who has been installing her own dishes such as seared lamb chop and neck with chanterelles on the menu for the past year. But the chef, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, won’t simply tweak existing dishes. “I want to bring in fresh air. I’m looking outside the Italian box.”
New Old Dishes
One of Del Posto’s best sellers has been the signature 100-layer lasagna. Rodriguez, who had never made pasta before she arrived at Del Posto, knew what an obvious replacement would have been. “I could have made 101-layer lasagna!” she joked.
Instead, the chef is reinventing the lasagna as a round offering, with layers of delicate pasta sheets, pesto, and chunks of braised pork. On top sits a crisp frico cap of fried pecorino Toscana. It might be one of the lighter, brightest-flavored lasagnas in history.
Likewise, Rodriguez has rethought another Ladner classic, spaghetti laced with crab and jalapeño. The crab is now the filling for thumb-sized agnolotti; the pasta dumplings are bathed in a butter sauce spiked with smoky Aleppo peppers and garnished with slices of serrano chile for an intense, spicy punch.
As for another Del Posto classic, Livorno-style fish soup with kelp-cured cod, Rodriguez is making use of the little grill she’s installed in the kitchen.
“Whenever I go out to eat Italian now, I’m jealous of all the wood ovens,” she said. Rodriguez is cooking shellfish over wood chips on the grill to add depth to the soup’s broth.
Her roasted vegetable salad now has a faux bagna cauda dressing, spiked with marmite instead of anchovies, to accommodate such vegan diners as regular Bill Clinton.
New Lounge Menu
Rodriguez plans to tweak the time-honored menu format at Del Posto as well, though she won’t say how or when. (Currently dinner menus come to $149 for the five-course Del Posto menu; the eight-course Captain’s menu costs $179.)
She confirmed that in a few months, as soon as the lounge area has been redesigned, guests will be able to eat there for the first time. She’ll offer a miniature tasting menu that comprises small bites, which might include crudos and fritti; she plans to use it as a place to test dishes that could eventually make it to the restaurant menu. The dishes will go well with Del Posto’s 300 bottle Champagne selection. It happens to be the only thing on the list that’s not Italian.