Author's Note: Over the weekend I sat down with Mark Ladner to talk about Molto Gusto, his newly released cookbook featuring recipes from Otto the West Village pizzeria that he opened with Mario Batali, where he likes to eat, what he cooks at home, and why we should all be eating and enjoying more vegetables.
Where did you start cooking and when did you develop your passion for Italian cuisine? I started cooking very casual fast-food as a teenager summering on Cape Cod and worked at as a pizzaiolo in Harvard Square in Boston. I have an aunt that used to hand-make manicotti for special family gatherings which blew my mind.
Who has been your biggest influence when it comes to cooking? I worked at the first incarnation of Todd English's Olives in Boston which was a 30-seat restaurant in a townhouse. We used a wood burning oven and a rotisserie which is where the inspiration for the pizza we make at Otto came from. Jean-Georges taught me about the importance of ratios over exact recipes when it comes to cooking.
Can you tell us about your favorite cookbooks? I generally look to cookbooks for style and inspiration more than actual recipes. Currently I've been more into food history, reading Garlic and Oil: Politics and Food in Italy. The past few Christmases I've given all of my cooks copies of The Oxford Companion to Italian Food and the Encyclopedia of Pasta by Oretta Zanini De Vita.
Can you tell us a little about how the concept of Otto came about? It was intended as a community service—we wanted to create a fast casual restaurant experience for adults and children alike. But at first people were a little confused. The menu was made up of plates that were meant to be shared but at the time this concept wasn't as popular is it is today. Also, Otto opened during that whole Sex and the City era when people were more interested in appletinis than extensive wine lists, there was a brief period when the bar became a bit of a meat market.
It took about a year and a half for Otto to really take off but now it's become a place to enjoy affordable, fresh, healthy food with a menu that offers a variety of options for putting a meal together. It's also become something of a destination for wine education offering wine tasting events and a staff that's accessible and helpful in navigating the sometimes difficult world of Italian wines.
The pizza-making technique at Otto is a bit unorthodox, can you explain how the pizzas are made and how this method is perhaps more accessible for home pizza makers? We had some trouble getting permission to install the ovens we wanted, so we developed a different style of cooking the pizzas. At Otto the dough is marked, dressed, then cooked on mirror finished Keating Griddles. Working on these griddles I found that I needed a dough that was slack, more similar to a pancake batter than a traditional pizza dough. I worked with Jim Lahey to come with the dough for Otto. Mario, in partnership with Copco, developed an extraordinary cast-iron enamel griddle pan for home use for Molto Gusto and is arguably better than the pizza at Otto, and honestly anyone can do it.
What are some of your favorite dishes from Molto Gusto? As far as antipasti go, the Hot & Cold Summer Squash with its combination of hot chile flakes and cold zucchini is a favorite and the Broccoli Rabe with Mozzaeralla Crema is another, the sauce is made by emulsifying the fresh mozzarella with some of its brine and mashing it into a sauce. The Escarole Salad is my kids' favorite, they eat it with the same voracity that they do gelato. I love any pasta with a long simmered vegetable ragu, especially the Cauliflower Ragu and Swiss Chard Ragu. And to finish the meal Meredith Kurtzman's Campari and Grapefruit Sorbetto and Cantaloupe Sorbetto.
What can Americans learn from the Italian way of eating and cooking? Fresh food, simply prepared, grown close to home. People should not only be eating more fresh vegetables but really enjoying them.
What do you like to cook at home? At home, anything that will fit in my big green egg! I like to do most of my home cooking outdoors to keep both the mess and the heat outside. I also make meals in the slow cooker for my family before I leave for work.
Where are some of your favorite places to eat out in the city? Many of my favorite places lately are Japanese. I love Izakaya Ten in Chelsea for Japanese style pub food, EN Brasserie in the West Village, and Morimoto where you can have westernized Nobu-style appetizers and traditional sushi prepared. Otherwise wd-50, Wylie is such an inspired artist and technician and his restaurant is always continuing to evolve.