Building an Empire
As the culinary mastermind behind the much-lauded Ai Fiori, Marea, Osteria Morini and Nicoletta (a new East Village pizzeria), this Wisconsin transplant has become NYC’s unofficial ambassador of soulful Italian cuisine. We chat with Michael about Italy’s allure, Midwestern hospitality and what’s on the menu for the Altamarea Group in 2013.
AndrewZimmern.com: What experiences led to your love of Italian food?
Michael White: I guess I grew up in a food centric family. Holidays were always exciting and prepared for with carefully thought out menus by my Mom. I found myself watching Great Chefs on PBS at a young age and looked forward to going to Domenico’s pizza for a slice (or a pie) whenever allowed. Midwestern Italian is a hodgepodge of deep dish Chicago pies, red sauce spaghetti and meatballs and overwhelming platters of baked ziti. But my love for Italian food really began when I first travelled to Italy after Kendall Culinary College. I went to work at San Domenico Restaurant in Imola, right outside of Bologna. I learned everything about Italian food and Italian culture. I met my Italian wife and fell in love. My love for Italian food stems far beyond the food itself. But regarding the food – I fell in love with the idea of a few deliciously fresh ingredients, which, when combined create something totally outrageous. The simplicity of Italian cuisine is what has kept my interest for so long. No matter what you are making, as long as your ingredients are the freshest available, the outcome will absolutely be tasty.
AZ.com: People are surprised to hear you grew up in Beloit, Wisconsin. How have your Midwestern roots played a part in your culinary career?
MW: My midwestern roots have given me a wonderful support system from which to grow. I try and stay humble and always remember where I came from and how far there is for me to go. I like to think of myself as a visionary who is driven towards endless possibility. Without my humble upbringing and the support of my family and friends in Wisconsin, none of my exciting present would be possible.
AZ.com: What do you miss most about the Midwest? Least?
MW: I miss Midwestern hospitality. Everyone is so welcoming and well mannered. I miss Wisconsin fish-frys, grilling brats on the lake in Summer time and quality vanilla custard. I really love New York though. This is where dreams come true.
AZ.com: Many people are intimidated by making fresh pasta at home. Any tips for home cooks?
MW: Flour, eggs & water. What is intimidating about that? Try it and you’ll see how simple it really is. And if you really want to impress, nothing is more special than handmade pasta at home…except maybe a perfect souffle.
AZ.com: Your restaurant empire keeps expanding. What’s next?
MW: Tribeca, UES, Washington DC are all on the docket for Altamarea Group 2013….The sky is the limit but quality is key. As long as we keep it consistent and my clients are happy…I’m happy!
AZ.com: Kitchen utensil you couldn’t live without?
MW: I just need my hands and from there I can figure out the rest.
AZ.com: Where do you like to eat in New York City?
AZ.com: Most underrated food city (or region) in Italy?
MW: Emilia Romagna — home of the Ferrari track as well as Balsamico, Parmigiano, Culatello, Lambrusco…I could go on! So many amazing things come from that region – actually known as “La Grassa” or the fat one, which automatically connotes good food.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
MW: Whole wheat bread, mortadella, sriracha, Greek yogurt, Parmigiano cheese.
Check out Michael’s recipe for Calabrese Pizza, a specialty from his new pizzeria Nicoletta.
Although Michael White’s soulful interpretations of Italian cuisine indicate otherwise, Michael is in fact a Midwesterner who spent his childhood in Beloit, Wisconsin. He embarked on his culinary career at Chicago’s Spiaggia and Ristorante San Domenico in Imola. White partnered with Ahmass Fakahany to form the Altamarea Group in New York City, which currently owns seven restaurants including Al Molo in Hong Kong. The flagship Marea holds two Michelin stars and won the 2009 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in America, as well as membership in Relais & Chateaux. In addition, Ai FIori at the Setai holds one Michelin star. Additional locations include Osteria Morini in Soho and Due Mari and Osteria Morini in New Jersey. Michael is currently working on his second cookbook, “Cook Like an Italian,” and most recently opened the group’s first pizza concept, Nicoletta, in New York’s East Village. Michael and the Altamarea Group will be opening two more locations in New York City at the beginning of 2013. For more information, visit: altamareagroup.com