City Paper is not for tourists
Between his Web TV series, his burger joint, and his occasional public appearances, Spike Mendelsohn has been a hard man to reach. But this morning, the former Top Chefer gave Y&H an hour to talk about his latest projects, including his company’s takeover of Zack’s Taverna (aka Taverna The Greek Islands) on Capitol Hill, which will eventually become home to Mendelsohn’s new pizzeria.
A previous report had indicated that Mendelsohn and his long-time bud and business partner, Mike Colletti, would just add pizza to the menu at Zack’s, but the situation is more complicated than that. With his Hellenic heritage, Mendelsohn says he lobbied hard to open his own chef-driven Greek restaurant in the Taverna space, but others within his family-oriented company, Sunnyside Group, shot down that idea in favor of a pizzeria.
Mendelsohn says he’s actually happy with the group decision. Zack’s has “been a Greek restaurant for 65 years…It just needs a fresh look,” he says. “You can’t just do another Greek restaurant. It’s been too long.”
For the time being, however, Mendelsohn and Colletti have cleaned up Zack’s kitchen and pared down the sprawling menu to about 15 or 20 choice items, which the chefs are preparing in their own style. They’re using this transitional period to get to know both Zack’s customers and its employees. “We’re just going to do some Greek food,” Mendelsohn says. “When the time comes, we might have to close for a couple of weeks to do the transition.”
Really, you can transform the place into a pizzeria in a matter of weeks?
“No,” Mendelsohn says quickly, forcing a laugh out of both of us.
Mendelsohn’s experience with Good Stuff Eatery has influenced how he will approach the pizzeria. He’s looking to create a “cool place to come and hang out” with a draft beer, a pie, and a simple salad. Mendelsohn uses words and phrases such as “laid back,” “comfortable,” and “good times” to describe the still-unnamed pizzeria. “Food has a lot to do with atmosphere,” he notes.
The chef has already been pounding the sidewalks of New York to sample slices in preparation for his new place, but he hasn’t decided exactly what kind of pie he wants to serve. He reiterated that he’s not interested in doing a classic Neapolitan pizza, which he thinks is too soggy for the American palate. (We both noted how 2Amys‘ roundis not a classic Neapolitan, no matter how good it is.) Mendelsohn wants to produce something crispier.
And yet: Mendelsohn does plan to lean on some Neapolitan traditions. He wants to use San Marzano tomatoes, and he plans to limit his toppings so that the crust doesn’t get lost under an avalanche of meat or fussy Puck-esque ingredients. “A lot of chefs, even when they’re cooking, they try to put too many ingredients in their dishes,” Mendelsohn says. The budding piemaker wants only “one to two to three ingredients, and that’s it.”
Mendelsohn isn’t even sure what kind of oven he’ll install at his 120-plus seat restaurant. He hasn’t ruled out a classic wood-fired Italian oven or even a gas-powered Wood Stone, but he says he’s been quite pleased with the slices that have come out of the humble Bakers Pride deck oven. For him, the right oven is more about temperature than the kind of fuel used to create the heat.
He’s far more certain that his pizzeria will, aside from pies and antipasti and pasta, also feature its own housemade sodas —- cola, orange, black cherry, root beer, maybe even vanilla cola. It’s part of Mendelsohn’s approach to creating restaurant concepts: He likes to reinvent classic items, whether burgers or sodas. Besides, as Mendelsohn notes, “I haven’t seen a place in a long time that makes its own sodas.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery