by gary walther | November 4, 2013 | Food & Drink
Executive Chef Michele Mazza at the new Il Mulino. below: The house mural has a Steam Punk–themed design.
Two sips into the lentil soup at Trattoria Il Mulino, a facile thought flashes through my mind: This tastes like soup. But on second thought, it’s not facile at all. For this is not the usual muscle-bound porridge of lentils. Rather, there’s just a sprinkling of green dots and a few strands of angel hair floating in this suave, light-bodied broth. It’s the lacings of puréed celery, onion, tomato, and lentils in quiet counterpoint that hold my attention, and the absence of that great soup crutch, salt.
The soup, like the entire menu at the new Trattoria Il Mulino, is the work of Michele Mazza, executive chef of the Il Mulino empire (14 outposts). Until now, Mazza has had one of the oddest jobs in the cuisine world: Don’t be inventive; be faithful to the legacy of Fernando and Gino Masci, brothers from the Abruzzi who opened the original Il Mulino on West Third Street in 1981. The restaurant instantly became a celebrity honeypot (and still is), and in September 2009, it achieved publicity nirvana when former President Bill Clinton, a regular, and President Barack Obama had lunch there. (“It was good,” Clinton told reporters afterward. “It was Il Mulino—how could it not be?”)
Capellini with arugula and almond/pistachio pesto.
Il Mulino owner Jerry Katzoff hired Mazza and gave him his marching orders. Katzoff, with Brian Galligan, bought out the Masci brothers in 2001, and he’ll be the first one to tell you that he’s not a restaurateur, but a brand developer. He bought The Greenhouse Spa in Dallas and developed a national chain of spas based on it. He took over Il Mulino with the same idea of creating a franchise. So far, he’s expanded to the Upper East Side, Las Vegas, Aspen, Miami, and Tokyo, among other locations.
What Katzoff didn’t want was change in the kitchen. To him, the Masci recipes were holy writ. “I always ask a prospective chef if he’s creative,” he says, “because we don’t want that.” Which is why Mazza is Il Mulino’s strict recipe constructionist, bringing The Word to every new Il Mulino, although he admits that he’s had to tweak the Masci cookbook to compensate for vagaries of location—lack of humidity in Vegas, altitude in Aspen. “It was not easy,” he says in his mellifluous Neapolitan-accented English. “More east, less water, lower heat; more west, more water, higher heat.”
The popular lamb steak.
What Mazza has done overall is much like that lentil soup, familiar dishes done with low-key verve. The flavors come in chords, not high notes, more choir than soloist. The grilled octopus with Yukon gold potatoes is smoky and a tad tangy, the octopus meltingly tender. But it’s the sauce, a light mix of reduced white wine and white vinegar accented with garlic and basil, which slowly rivets your attention and provides the flavor-frame.
What Trattoria Il Mulino shares with the original is an emphasis on quality ingredients and from-scratch cooking, with Mazza adding a side of healthy eating. His foccacia is made with tofu. He’s miserly with butter. The soup stocks, made every morning, are vegetarian. Pasta is made daily. The pesto base is arugula, which gives it a nice bass-note finish, while the almonds and pistachios Mazza uses (instead of the traditional pine nuts or walnuts) make it light. The dough in the seafood pizza, which comes in the shape of a fish, is made by hand and took a month to perfect, requiring more water than usual and a two-step cooking process. And the pizzaiolo is authentic, a guy Mazza brought from Naples. “That’s all he’s done his whole life,” my waiter tells me.
Bell-jar lights as ceiling décor.
What Trattoria Il Mulino doesn’t share with the other Il Mulinos is the industrial-chic décor. It’s high concept in a restaurant whose food is decidedly not. In the front section, where most of the tables for two stand, there’s a grid of bell-jar lights with filament bulbs hanging upside down from a Medusa of metal wires and vintage plumbing, mostly industrial water faucets. It actually looks good in the evening when the lights seem suspended in the air and the filaments look like little thunderbolts. The entire back wall of the dining room is a hallucinatory, black and sepia mural that celebrates the Steam Punk design movement.
The décor keynote though is neither lights nor mural, but something much simpler, the finish on the Sheetrock walls. It displays the finesse of Julie Marten, a professional decorative wall finisher from Long Island. Trattoria Il Mulino is the first time she worked with a concrete powder finish. It took three applications over two weeks to get it right, but it paid off. The finish makes the walls look brushed and powdery like they’ve just been done by a makeup artist. In the evening, as the dining room darkens down, the room takes on a pearly gray matte glow. It’s the surprise unifying element, just like that lentil broth. 36 E. 20th St., 212-777-8448
photography by evan sung