I Trulli’s Pugliese charms.
In the dawn of the 1980s, Nicola Marzovilla was a humble workaday ladieswear salesman with a dream: to make New Yorkers know and love the cuisine of his homeland, Puglia, Italy.
But back then, when Italian meant thick red sauces, gooey melted Polly-O and hunky veal chops, even the most sophisticated New Yorker, when faced with a menu touting the cuisine of this spike-heeled province of southern Italy, might have uttered, “Where’s Poog-lee-uh?” Even the restaurant’s name wasn’t your typical Momma- or Nonna-Something-or-Other. Instead he christened it I Trulli.
“An Italian knows it right away, and asks, ‘Where are you from in Puglia?’” says Marzovilla over a plate of petite, perfectly circular, concave orecchiette, made only moments before by his mother, Dora, 77, standing quietly in the open kitchen, a little white cap perched upon her head.
The name comes from the pretty little seaside town of Campobello, a bit famous for its unusual primitive-looking houses known as the trulli. Made of stones so expertly stacked, the cone-like structures need no mortar or cement. Which is part and parcel to their usefulness: They can be taken apart at will (when word comes of an impending visit from the tax man, dismantling entire homes is a clever way of avoiding property assessment). And although it’s the name Marzovilla chose for his 20-year-old ode to Pugliese cuisine, I Trulli is solidly hunkered down and here to stay—even when chefs come and go.
“Nothing changed the day Patti left,” says Marzovilla of the recent amicable departure of chef Patti Jackson. “Nothing changed the day Mauro left,” he says of Mauro Mafrici, the talented Italian chef who helmed the stove from 1999 to 2005. “That’s not what it’s about.”
What it is about is Italian cuisine’s core tenet or clever simplicity. “If it has more than three ingredients and it’s not minestrone, you don’t want it,” Marzovilla deadpans. “You go to a restaurant and they give you cavatelli with, say, pine nuts and shrimp and broccoli rabe and sun-dried tomatoes and basil and cream and… what? What?! What!” he trails off, waving a hand. “I mean, we could make three dishes out of that.”
When cavatelli comes from the I Trulli kitchen, delicate broccoli rabe florets and pesto made from the bitter vegetable’s stems cling demurely to handmade pasta dotted with tiny bits of raw almonds. Or just-seared squid, so juicy and tender and practically crudo, gets a smoky bit of char from the flames that lick at their squiggly legs. In the Apuglian specialty panzerotti, half-moon shaped puffs of savory pastry are stuffed with bits of olive, scallion and salty anchovy. But when I Trulli opened in 1994, these things that weren’t a part of the common culinary vernacular in the way they are now, in these post-Babbo days of Marea, Torrisi Italian Specialties and nearby Maialino (could anyone have pronounced Maialino in 1994?). Even in her glowing review several months after it opened, then New York Timesfood critic Ruth Reichl wrote of Puglia, “[T]he region’s rustic food does not have the subtle charm of northern Italian food.” Perhaps it was a bit more subtle than she realized.
“He wanted very much to be as traditional as possible,” says Michele Scicolone, the cookbook author who consulted with Nicola on his early menu. “Americans weren’t ready for rabbit or broccoli rabe. No one was making those southern Italian semolina pastas like cavatelli or orecchiette, which is very traditional in the region [Nicola] comes from. These and many of his other dishes weren’t foods people ate regularly. He was definitely an innovator, and now we see the results. People eat rabbit and octopus now. The latter is becoming scarce because it’s become so popular! Nicola was one of the people who bought these to the American public. At I Trulli, he was doing real Neapolitan-style pizza and that was certainly not commonplace. Now there’s a new one every week.”
Long before Danny Meyer made barbecue history next door or Les Halles’ Tony Bourdain shot to fame a couple of blocks away, the irresistible flavors and aromas that drifted from the slightly-subterranean spot on 27th Street comforted the hungry and quelled the Italo-curious. I Trulli’s wood-fired oven burned like a beacon for all to see, two steps down into the wide, now-well-worn floor planks of its first of three dining rooms.
The way Marzovilla tells it, the whole idea started with a bit of stars-in-your-eyes happenstance.
Born in Puglia, the second of four children, 10-year-old Nicola, his parents and his three siblings emigrated to the Bronx in 1970, in the last wave of Italians searching for more on American shores. Dora was a seamstress and dad Domenico dealt in produce. When young Nicola came of age, a semester in college chained to a desk and books was about all he could sit still for, so he nabbed a job managing a shop in Queens that dealt in women’s clothing—and where a cute shopgirl named Astrid from Istria, Croatia, would catch his eye and, eventually, become mother of his three children. But in 1986, Nicola made a new friend back home on Arthur Avenue who would alter the course of his life forever.
“He was the maître d’ at an Italian restaurant,” says Marzovilla of his former business partner, Luigi Quarta, “and very debonair! I totally fell in love with the person he was.” His dazzling new friend’s savoir faire and seeming sophistication extended beyond sharp dressing and into the fine dining scene, which he introduced to Nicola with gusto. The more they ate together, the more they talked about how they could do it better.
Within a year, the two friends would open Tempo, an Italian restaurant on 29th Street that kicked the old red-sauce template to the curb. Instead of veal Parmesan, they were serving delicate salmon with capers and Italian white wine; instead of brick-weight stuffed shells they made housemade tagliolini with fresh, just-crunchy asparagus and not-yet-ubiquitous sun-dried tomatoes. But despite the dolce reviews, the partnership went sour. Within nine months of Tempo’s opening, Marzovilla and Quarta severed ties.
“I fell out of love as quickly as I fell in it!” he laughs. Quarta walked away, leaving Marzovilla the “proud owner of Tempo, debt and all.” Dora took out a second mortgage on her house in Westchester. She also decided to come in and help make the pastas, many of which she knew from her native Puglia.
“At the end of the meal, you’d get complimentary stuffed dried figs with fennel and almonds,” says Scicolone. “Perfect with a little glass of sweet wine. There were lots of things there that you didn’t see back then.” It was here that Michele and her husband, Charles, would be introduced to Marzovilla by their friend, Tony DiDio of the wine consulting firm TD Selections in Brooklyn. Charles owned a wine shop in Brooklyn Heights and DiDio, then a wine salesman for Frederick Wildman Imports, loved introducing his friends to new finds he discovered on his travels around the city.
“We met in Nicola’s early days at Tempo,” Michele says. “Tony had told us about this little Italian place, that the owner’s mom makes the pasta, that he’s from Italy, that it was family run.” The menu became more and more Pugliese and stayed that way until Marzovilla found a better spot to accommodate his growing plans for a true Pugliese restaurant with the city’s first all-Italian wine list.
I Trulli’s trio of rooms appealed to Marzovilla because their attached-yet-separate nature reminded him of Campobello’s trulli—the way one would be built upon another, yet still attached, so it becomes a house with many rooms.
“To me, it’s a real physical representation of Puglia,” he says. The space on 27th Street was an old pub, which he gutted and made into a warm but chic spot. He made a piled-stone wood-fired oven, stacked in the trulla style with stones in a cone-like shape. He put in a glass fireplace that attached to each of the two back dining rooms and created a serene garden dining spot with a mellow, trickling waterfall, made to be open-air in the warm months but closed like a bright, sunny greenhouse in the winter.
“In 1994, we were the first white-tablecloth southern Italian restaurant, and the first Pugliese one, too—no one else was dumb enough to try it,” he jokes, but Marzovilla’s vision was more acute than that. He knew that New Yorkers, although potentially unfamiliar at first with what he was serving, would come around to the freshness and authenticity he, Dora and then-chef Carlo Buonavita, who followed them from Tempo to I Trulli, were serving up.
Michele offered help in honing the menu offerings and balancing them—something between authentically adventurous and approachable to the shy of palate for whom rabbit or squid ink seemed too exotic. Charles came on as wine director in 1997, shaping the list to reflect bottles with a true sense of place. He also added grape varietals that even most savvy drinkers hadn’t seen. That same year, Marzovilla acquired the space next door and opened the Enoteca.
“The idea was that the restaurant wasn’t doing hit-parade Italian, but trying to honor a particular place—it was the same with the wine,” says Charles, who was wine director for both I Trulli and the Enoteca for more than a decade. “It was the first Italian restaurant with an all-Italian wine list, and a very extensive one. There were over 600 wines on [it]. We had flights and wines by the glass. That was one of the unique things we did at the onset—there must have been at least 20 by the glass, and all Italian.” Marzovilla now has seven acres just outside Florence where he grows Sangiovese for wines under his own label, Massoferrato.
In 1999, Italian-born chef Mauro Mafrici took the helm of the kitchen, and for seven years brought his carefully creative authenticity to Marzovilla’s menu. Between his cooking and Scicolone’s carefully curated bottles, I Trulli hummed along—so well that Marzovilla found himself needing new projects. They came in the form of sleek SoHo eatery and wine bar Centovini, and a wine shop that he opened just across the street from I Trulli. The latter did well (and Marzovilla sold last year to its manager, Adam Linet); the former, while well regarded, didn’t last, but did bring to Marzovilla the talented Patti Jackson.
“I consider Patti as Italian as me,” says Nicola of his former non-Italian chef. Indeed, Jackson cut her teeth as executive chef at Pino Luongo’s famed downtown spot, Le Madri, and then did a stint as executive pastry chef for Scott Conant’s lovely if buttoned up respite, Alto.
“I remember when I Trulli opened. I was working for Pino and living in a weird Tuscan fantasy land and thinking, ‘Ohhhh, I can’t wait to go there!’” she says. “It was food people weren’t giving proper respect to and weren’t that into it.”
But Jackson was. So much so that when the opportunity came to work for Nicola at Centovini in 2006, she jumped. After Mafrici left to stretch his wings, Jackson came on and helmed both kitchens until Centovini shuttered in 2008. Then, I Trulli was her one and only.
“They’re very interesting and thoughtful people—they’re willing to go beyond,” says Jackson, who spent seven years as I Trulli’s executive chef. One of the things she loved most about being there was the synergy of her own market-focused cooking with Dora’s deep, innate knowledge and history of cooking in Puglia.
“I could spend weeks researching and looking for some ingredient, and I’d finally find it and bring it in, and Dora would say, ‘Oh, that’s this, and you have to cook it like that,’” she laughs. “So I’d be crazy trying to figure out what I’d do with a turnip, and she’d just know.”
For example, while poking around Union Square, Jackson found some curly kale she thought would be great in a stew, perhaps, for a dinner I Trulli planned to honor the foods of Basilicata, a region of southern Italy a cici bean’s throw from Puglia.
“This was before the big kale moment we’re in now,” Jackson laughs, “but I brought it in, and Dora was like, ‘Where’d you get this?’” It turned out Dora and her sister had, as young women, braised the stems and frilly leaves into a delicious sauce. The modern chef and the old-fashioned cook were totally in sync.
But this is, really, what I Trulli set out to do to begin with: to show the beauty in simplicity and elegance of great ingredients. It’s the sincerity of these old-world dishes that makes them de rigueur. As Marzovilla may tell you, sometimes you have to reach back to go forward.
“Immigrants get frozen in time,” he says, gently stabling a bit of rabbit and cavatelli. “They want to go back, and they realize they don’t recognize where they’re from—but if you didn’t evolve here, you’d find yourself without a home. Food is a way to hold onto it, but evolve.”
Amy Zavatto’s Pugliese-born mother-in-law taught her a thing or three about cooking. Possibly most important: How to make perfect, delicate crepes for manicotti.
Want to see if you can bake like the I Trulli team? Try their recipe for panzerotti.