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After initially denying the rumor several weeks ago, Jaleo executive chef JohnPaul Damato confirmed on Monday that he will soon leave his post overseeing José Andrés’ three tapas operations in order to open Mio next spring in Thomas Circle.
For the new restaurant, which will feature “American cooking with global influences,” Damato is teaming up with Manuel Iguina, whom the chef first met several years ago at Restaurant Nora. Both men have extensive resumes—Damato has cooked for Nora, Jaleo, and many places in New York; Iguina has served as GM for Nora and Café Atlantico as well as director of operations for Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld’s Latin Concepts group, among other gigs—but this is the first restaurant either has owned on American soil.
“If I didn’t do it, I would have regretted it,” Damato says. “It’s more of a personal challenge.…This is my place. This is like my mother gave me my own bedroom after sharing it with five brothers. Here it is. Here is my own bedroom. I get to put my own posters up. I get to put the stereo in the spot where I want it.”
Damato, Iguina, and other investors plan to sink nearly $2 million into Mio, which will be located at 1110 Vermont Ave. NW—in the same complex as another highly anticipated restaurant, Il Mulino New York, the überupscale Italian outlet set to open in January. Damata expects to compete with his expensive neighbor by offering a more modest-priced menu and “using ingredients from a certain parts of Italy, using ingredients from a certain parts in Spain, using ingredients from the Middle East, and just putting it into our local, beautiful ingredients.”
Mio will combine two of Damato’s more obvious influences: the organic ingredients of Nora and the small plates of Jaleo. (Not that Damato plans to call his plates “tapas”; he describes them as “little noshy things.”) “I’ve been eating organic food and dealing with organic farmers for the last 25 years. I’ve been well-educated through my family with it,” says Damato, whose brother, Steven, is the long-time partner of Nora Pouillon.
Damato says his last day at Jaleo will be in mid-January, when he plans to start looking hard for a chef de cuisine, a baker, and the rest of his staff. After spending recent months overseeing chefs and sous chefs at the three Jaleos, Damato is looking forward to going back into the kitchen full-time. And, he says, he’s not worried that he’ll now be cooking under his own name, not José André’.
“If my name’s out there and it’s up there, OK, it’s up there, just like everybody else’s,” he says. “I can’t get caught up in my name. I got to get caught up in what goes on everyday.”