An Interview with Catherine de Zagon Louy: Locanda Vini e Olii, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, New York | Yng-Ru Chen

from Gastronomica 7:1

YRC: You and your husband run Locanda Vini e Olii together. It’s clear that this is a homegrown restaurant and that you’re concerned with presenting authentic Italian cuisine. Tell me about your backgrounds and how they contributed to your restaurant.

CL: I was raised in Florence, Italy, so the food I serve here is the food I grew up with. My husband and I come from very diverse backgrounds. I’m half Hungarian, half Belgian. Though I was born in the United States, I grew up in Italy. My husband, Fran$cLois Louy, was also born in the United States, but he is of Persian heritage and was raised in Milan. So foodwise, we’ve been exposed to many different cuisines. Yet our roots and our hearts, and the food that we love most, go back to Italy and, for me, Tuscany.

I kind of fell into the restaurant business, like many people, by mistake or while trying to do something else. My husband and I were working in the fashion industry. I went to fashion school in Paris, worked as a buyer, and did pretty well. When I first arrived in Los Angeles in 1986, I was working at a restaurant at night and in fashion during the day. And my husband, who wasn’t yet my husband, was managing a restaurant in Beverly Hills. I eventually went to work there, too, so that’s how we met. Even though we were both doing pretty well in fashion, when we moved to New York, I started waiting tables at a restaurant on the Lower East Side. After a while I ended up at Balthazar, first as a waitress, then as a manager. My husband was a manager for Cipriani.

YRC: How much of the food at Locanda Vini e Olii is Tuscan, and how much originates in other regions of Italy? Do you ever prepare foods that represent your or your husband’s heritage?

CL: Most of our food is deeply rooted in Tuscan tradition, though sometimes it is a reinterpretation of those traditions. An example is black olives and orange zest, which is a typical combination often used to spice up a dish such as wild boar or pasta. So I made pasta using orange zest in the dough and topped with a black olive pesto—the same combination of flavors in a different interpretation. The result is still very familiar and Tuscan. Many chefs in Italy and a great one in Tuscany—Valeria Piccini from Da Caino—are taking traditional recipes that call for strictly local ingredients and reconstructing them with their own signature style.

Some of our dishes are from regions other than Tuscany simply because I love them, such as the Venetian sardines in saor or the Sicilian pasta con le sarde. The idea is that ours is a cucina casereccia (a home-style restaurant), and therefore, as the “housewife” in charge, I cook the food from my land but also the food I have tasted and loved somewhere else. Sometimes it’s a question of ingredients. The chestnut lasagnette should be made with Tuscan sausage, but I can’t get it in New York, so I use the next closest thing, luganega, a savory pork sausage from Lombardia that is made locally in New York.

As for food from my own and my husband’s backgrounds, I love to cook Persian, Hungarian, and Belgian food, but I only do it at home or for a staff meal!

Catherine de Zagon Louy and Fraçois Louy. Photo by Yng-Ru Chen © 2006

YRC: Were you actively cooking and experimenting with recipes during the years you worked as a manager at Balthazar?

CL: I’ve always been passionate about cooking and food. I started cooking when I was six years old. While I was at Balthazar, Fran$cLois and I would have dinner parties four or five times a week. And I got more creative with the food. I was always doing research. I went to Italy to collect recipes.

YRC: How did you come across this space, a former pharmacy built during the Ulysses S. Grant era, in the off-the-beaten-track neighborhood of Clinton Hill?

CL: It was actually our neighborhood drugstore. The very few times I went there, it seemed so dirty and old and falling apart. Everything was really dusty; the candy looked like it was thirty years old. The owners never had anything in stock—even the postcards were from the 1940s. So when it closed, my husband kept talking about what a beautiful space it was for a restaurant, which I had never noticed. Since we lived so close by, we started hounding the landlord. Originally, this was to be a project between me and a partner, but he couldn’t envision a sit-down restaurant here. He thought the only restaurant that could succeed in this space would be a bulletproof take-out counter, which at the time was probably the case. Eventually, my husband decided that the two of us should do it together, which was the greatest idea. It’s really been a labor of love.

YRC: Did you continue working while you were preparing to go ahead with the restaurant?

CL: Absolutely. I was still working for Keith McNally at Balthazar. He was incredibly supportive. He put me in touch with his graphic designer and referred me to his liquor license lawyer. He was amazing.

YRC: Were you concerned about the restaurant being located so far off the beaten track?

CL: It’s not a well-traveled corner at all, and people thought we were crazy. But we were never really looking to become a famous restaurant. We just wanted to be a neighborhood place. And we weren’t looking for tourists. Luckily, Locanda Vini e Olii grew into something much different.

YRC: But there must have been more than just neighborhood charm and loyalty in the ingredients for your success.

CL: We were extremely lucky, because the month after we opened, the New York Times reviewed us. We didn’t have a pr firm or do much pr, but I did send an e-mail to the Times about our opening. Eric Asimov called us twenty minutes after I sent the e-mail, which I still find amazing. He interviewed me over the phone, and I figured he would come by a month or so later. He came the very next night, which I wasn’t aware of at the time. But a week later he called again, telling me he had been to the restaurant three times and that he was ready to write the review. So I was trying to figure out who he might have been, based on the food he was asking me about. Then I kind of figured out who he was: we thought we had this brand-new steady customer, spending so much money, eating so much food, drinking all these different wines. [Laughs] It was really sad to lose him.

YRC: The review was amazing. He called it “special” and “beautiful” and said that “passion rules here.” You can’t get much better than that.

CL: I think that the food back then wasn’t as good as it is now. And the service was certainly not as good as it is now—our team is so incredible. The restaurant wasn’t yet a well-oiled machine. But he understood what we were trying to do. And he expressed in words everything we hoped to become. He really “got” us, which was great.

YRC: Let’s talk about the standard of service here, which I think is very high. It’s attentive, knowledgeable, and totally unpretentious. There’s just a nice rhythm to it.

CL: I got really lucky. I surround myself with excellent people. The servers are all passionate about food and wine. My husband and I definitely want a high level of service, and little details are important. A huge thing for me is that we pour the first glass of mineral water and then never again. A major pet peeve of mine is when restaurants are constantly pushing you and refilling your glasses and asking if you want another bottle. We never push anything. That’s a certain style we have.

YRC: Which dishes are your favorites at Locanda Vini e Olii?

CL: That’s hard to say, because we change the menu often, and nothing makes it onto the menu unless both my husband and I love it. A few staples that rarely leave the menu are the Charcuterie from the Sea and the beef or bison tongue salmistrata, the chestnut lasagnette with luganega, and our Piemontese beef tagliata with rosemary sea salt.

YRC: Do you have plans to do anything different?

CL: I’d like to branch out into writing, teaching, television, maybe not stay in the kitchen for hours on end. I’d love to learn how to bake. My dream, if I didn’t have to work, is I’d go to Japan for a year and learn Japanese cooking techniques.

YRC: Which restaurants do you admire?

CL: There are a lot. I just went to the Japanese noodle bar Momofuku [in the East Village, Manhattan], which I thought was amazing. The flavors were so perfect, and it felt very traditional. They also use natural ingredients. I also like Ici on Dekalb Avenue [in Fort Greene, Brooklyn]. They use all organic, locally grown vegetables, and its run by a friend from Balthazar’s. The Tasting Room [in Manhattan] is one of my all-time favorites.

YRC: Those are all great places, and some of my favorites, too. I feel like I’m on the right track! One of the dishes I love here is shrimp and chickpeas.

CL: That’s such a simple dish.

YRC: Really? I tried making it at home once, but it failed. Is that a traditional dish?

CL: Very. Dishes using chickpeas with rosemary are traditional in central Italy. And legumes with fish or seafood are also very traditional. But the preparation for the chickpeas in our dish takes three hours. You start by soaking them in water, and then you simmer them in a vegetable broth. And then we use great rosemary and olive oil. I had a guy from Rome who came in once who was so ecstatic and said to me in Italian, “I ceci col rosmarino, come li faceva mi madre”—“Just like my mom makes it.” He was so happy. Simplicity is a really big thing in Italy, and for me. I think good dishes should never have more than four ingredients, not counting olive oil. I love the purity of the ingredients.

YRC: Do your dishes really contain no more than four ingredients besides olive oil?

CL: Simplicity is key in Italian food. And the connection to the earth and its flavors are essential. You should be able to pick apart a dish you are eating and smell, see, or taste each of the ingredients. This is not true of other great cuisines. As many as thirty ingredients can go into a well-crafted Mexican mole, but balance is still essential, and you should only add what can actually make a difference in the taste. For example, our chestnut lasagnette sauce has only sausage, chickpeas, Tuscan kale, and rosemary (olive oil and salt do not count). Okay, there’s also a hint of tomato paste, but it’s more for color. The key is timing, and also time! When to add what, and how long to do what. My husband says patience is what makes our marriage work; I say patience is what makes my food taste the way it does.