Jason Neroni has no socks. The thirty year-old chef of Porchetta, the New Italian/Creative American place on Smith Street in Brooklyn, is going commando with his clogs. Owner Marco Riviero is behind the bar squeezing blood oranges with a citrus press for one last round of mimosas. Saturday lunch is winding down, but Porchetta is still filled with customers, most of whom are sitting with coffee. “Just give me a few more minutes,” says Neroni, coming out of the kitchen for a moment. “We were pretty busy today.”
The dining room is small, with 59 seats. It has plank flooring and a tin ceiling, hand stamped wallpaper. A trophy moosehead hangs over a red banquette. It wouldn’t be out of place at a V.F.W. hall or hunting lodge, except the moose is made of interconnecting plywood pieces, like a game of Jenga gone wrong. When Neroni emerges from the kitchen a few minutes later to sit down for our interview, he still has no socks, and it will be another two hours until he gets a pair. Neroni is best known to most New Yorkers as the chef who replaced Wylie Dufresne at 71 Clinton Fresh Food; others know him from the original Tasting Room. Gothamist set out to get the backstory of his current gig at Porchetta.
Like many chefs, the 30 year-old California native’s beginning in the restaurant business was entirely accidental. At 16, Neroni had enrolled in college classes as part of an accelerated art program. To pay the bills, he applied for a job at Disneyland. “When I got there, I guess I didn’t fit the image, so they put me in a basement prep kitchen under New Orleans Square,” says Neroni. He peeled cases of fruit and potatoes for a whole summer. Otherwise, Neroni found himself mixing “trash can-sized buckets of Ranch Dressing.”
Later Neroni landed a job with the Chateaubriand-making French’s chef's equivalent of the witness protection program, Disneyland’s top secret and mysterious Club 33. Here he was first exposed to the classics -- Loup de Mer, Sauce Béarnaise -- all that stuff. Neroni later moved to San Francisco and worked days at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio and nights for free at Chez Panisse, for a whole year. “Postrio was the first place I saw things like foie gras with vanilla and pineapple,” he says. “It blew my mind.”
In 1999 Neroni followed a tip and moved to New York, seeking work at Lespinasse. Instead he found that Gray Kunz had just left the restaurant. Neroni didn’t know what to do. "I was holding an extra copy of my resume,” he says. “So I walked into Le Cirque in the middle of lunch service the day before Thanksgiving, went past the hostess station, through the kitchen, walked right up to the chef and handed him my resume. He looked at me and was like, ‘How the hell did you get in here?’ He looked at my resume and hired me. I started the next day.”
Neroni spent some time with Floyd Cardoz and Dan Barber before landing a job in Alain Ducasse’s kitchen, where he stayed for six months. From there, Neroni worked at the short-lived Bid restaurant at Sotheby’s before finding his way to the original Tasting Room. It was here, in a miniscule basement kitchen with two induction burners and a hanging infrared heatlamp that Neroni began to tweak his original approach to food. He also sourced many of the restaurant’s ingredients himself, and became known as a greenmarket freak within foodie circles. “It was an amazing time,” he says. “Every day I was on my BMX, going uptown, downtown. There’d be things wiggling in my backpack as I biked back to the restaurant.” Neroni laughs, and the last few lunch customers leave.
We move over to a window seat facing Smith Street. Some pedestrians stop to read Porchetta’s menu in the glass case outside. Porchetta’s house stereo is mainlined into owner Marco Riviero’s iPod, set to shuffle through early New Wave, mid-career Beastie Boys, tinny bluegrass, and a few torch songs. “It’s kind of like his living room out here,” says Neroni. Completing that analogy is the kitchen of Porchetta, a typically cramped affair with a three-by-ten hot line. While Neroni remains quiet and focused during dinner service, an improvisational, home kitchen feel suffuses the night. Just before it begins, we walk over to Stinky on Smith Street to buy some Sheep’s milk ricotta, and many people stop to make small talk with the chef.
In 2004, Jason Neroni became the third replacement for Wylie DuFrense at 71 Clinton Fresh Food. Perhaps because DuFresne had opened WD~50 down the street and Clinton Street was something of a molecular gastronomy restaurant row, comparisons of the two chef’s styles were unavoidable. “They never really mentioned me without mentioning him,” says Neroni, about the shadow of Wylie. “People would come in, look at the menu, and say, ‘Can you do the old menu stuff that Wylie used to do for us?’” Neroni laughs. “Nathan Lane left The Producers a long time ago, but the show goes on.” After 71 Clinton closed, Neroni almost took a job “cooking for a billionaire on his boat off the coast of Thailand for two months,” opting instead to preside over Iron Chef-style competitions at high schools across the country for Glaceau (with people like Luke Perry and Kelly Clarkson drinking Vitamin Water on the sidelines). Neroni also went on a long cross-country vacation with his fiancée Jennifer to clear his head. Finally, after months of job searching, Neroni moved to a Smith Street apartment in October and saw a Craigslist posting for Porchetta; Riviero had opened in July and was looking for a new chef. Neroni rewrote the menu in an hour, got the job, and started full-time the following Monday.
Just before service, Neroni makes some last minute changes to the menu. Lamb proscuitto will be standing in for duck ham, he tells the staff, because the duck ham hasn’t cured enough. Hedgehog mushrooms will replace the chanterelles normally found in the pork “porterhouse.” Neroni ends his daily staff meeting by describing the day’s specials, an octopus appetizer, and Nantucket bay scallop main. “It’s Italian food,” says Neroni, “skewed through my eyes.” We head back to the kitchen because it is 5:40, and dinner service has started.
A tray of picked over and trimmed herbs is brought up to the kitchen and placed on the line: neat rows of single leaves, bits of parsley, and chive tips. A soup pot containing the leftovers of staff meal is removed from the plating area, and the counters are cleaned. A Kitchen Aid mixer with a pasta attachment is lugged up from the basement and Neroni folds and refold pasta sheets the length of the line, using a ring mold to punch out circles for the “uovo raviolo.” He pulls a tray of Russet potatoes that have baked on a bed of kosher salt and peels them hot- he does this instead of boiling them. “It makes the best gnocchi,” says Neroni. “I do the gnocchi and the pasta every night. It’s the last thing I do before service.” Neroni rests the gnocchi on a tray sprinkled with semolina for a few minutes before blanching them in boiling water. A porter stands at the door and cuts bread for service. “First table coming in five minutes,” Neroni says. The kitchen staff nod their heads, and make the final adjustments to their stations for dinner service.
The first table orders some salads and one of the specials. Wingman Brian Miller puts a cold beet salad togther, which is topped with a Gehry-like swirl of shaved fennel and translucent slivers of salted watermelon radish. Behind the hot line, Neroni pats a handful of Nantucket Bay scallops between a few paper towels, seasons them with sea salt and Tellicherry Pepper, releases them into a hot pan. In the center of a wide bowl he spoons a quenelle of smashed green olives. Sicilian olive oil and herby brine seep out from the puree when he places the scallops on top. Neroni decorates the plate with tiny wedges of ruby red grapefruit, chive tips, and celery leaves before sending it out. He pulls the handwritten order ticket down off the line and spikes it.
“I use local products whenever I can,” says Neroni, as the next tables are ordered in. The restaurant’s bacon comes from a Polish butcher on 1st Avenue in Manhattan. Neroni hands me a piece of billowy, slightly tangy mozzarella. “That’s from Aiello Brother’s right here on Smith Street,” he says. Both Rick’s Picks and Wheelhouse Pickles make guest appearances on the constantly changing menus -- today, Wheelhouse Bread and Butters were paired with chicken liver pate, fig marmalade, and brioche on the lunch menu -- elements of a deconstructed sandwich plate.
Neroni asks his pastry chef Mandy Brown for a count on the night’s dessert specials just as the first table is about to order. Just an hour later, at 7 PM, the restaurant is full, and the kitchen fills with popping sounds. Every burner is full. Neroni simmers a tripe special, and the sweet, spicy smell lingers. Miller completes a table’s order by laying strips of guanciale, or cured pork jowl, over the top of gnocchi in a steep lipped bowl. The guanciale stands in for lardo, and melts in with the gnocchi’s truffle-based sauce as it goes out to the table. The bowl’s high rim focuses the truffle and smoked scents like a satellite dish.
A pan of Brussels sprouts is pulled from the oven. “They smell like popcorn, don’t they?” Neroni asks. He treats Brussels sprouts like other chefs treat a steak, browning the halved pieces in a pan, and finishing them in the oven. They are plated in the middle of an eggy chile flake aioli, paired with a cube of crispy pork belly on the side, a gently fried egg, and a few shavings of bottarga, which is cured and dried tuna roe. Porchetta sells a lot of Brussel Sprouts. As the saying goes, if you’re only going to eat Brussels sprouts only once this year, well, eat them at Porchetta.
Almost always reflexively paired with broccoli rabe and sausage, Porchetta’s bowl of orecchiette is a collection of unusual suspects: roasted and pureed cheese pumpkin, small pieces of gorgonzola dolce, crushed red pepper, thinly sliced sopressata, and a sendoff shake of wild fennel pollen. Okay, so it’s an assertive plate: spicy without being too hot, sweet without being annoying; something sharply unstable, but delicious, to each bite. On this dish’s ingredients, Frank Bruni calls them “arresting,” but adds “these players didn’t team up in a harmonious way.” Says Gothamist: don’t believe the hype. This stuff is the pasta plate equivalent of rocket fuel.
Mackerel, otherwise known as a fish that gets very little New York love, is pan roasted and set over a small bit of roasted garlic puree and broth. The fish is covered with an almost lacquer-like slick of gremolata, and a bunch of shaved and fried artichoke slices. The fish was moist, not at all oily, with a clean, delicate flavor.
One of Mandy Brown’s desserts consists of a few slices of olive oil cake studded with green pistachios resting on a fan of barely poached pear. The cake is doused with more Sicilian Olive Oil, topped with honey-lavender gelato, and is given a sendoff scattering of lemon thyme leaves. Its success is hedged on savory notes- there’s nothing sweet about it- but there’s a quiet revelation in its textures- the pear is cooked but has a faint crunch, the cake crumbly and nutty, the gelato is super smooth. The thyme has a fragrant bitter punch, and the base of Sicilian olive oil loops it all together.
Porchetta has one special monthly event- its Beer and Pork Night. Riviero and Neroni carefully select small batch beers and microbrews; there’s a small plate, hog-centric menu coursed to match. The next one is coming up on January 21st at 6 PM; call for reservations. A representative from Heritage Foods U.S.A. will be on hand to talk about the differences between Berkshire and Duroc pork, and to clunk glasses with you.
241 Smith Street
Sun.-Thurs. 5:30 to 10:30
Fri., Sat. 5:30 to 11:30