I had the pleasure of interviewing Chef Maurizio Crescenzo of Grano Trattoria, an Italian restaurant and pizzeria
in New York City. Read on for this revealing interview.
As the recently crowned Chopped Champion on Food Network Chopped, Chef and owner Maurizio Crescenzoo is no stranger to brick oven cuisine. On a daily basis he makes pizza, bakes bread and pasta, and even braises all types of meat in the brick oven. Maurizio has been showcasing his culinary skills since the age of 14. He came to New York City in 1996 and one year later launched Grano Trattoria in Greenwich Village. After the success of his first restaurant, Maurizio opened up Taverna Di Bacco in the Lower East
Side in 2011.
Albert: Thanks very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with me…
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into the restaurant business:
What is your training? Did you learn in Italy? Did you have any pizza mentors there?
Chef Maurizio: At a young age, I discovered my passion for food. When I was 14, I attended I.P.A.S. (Istituto Professionale Alberghiero Di Statoculinary) culinary school in Italy which is where I really fell in love with cooking. I worked alongside great Italian chefs who also mentored me through culinary school. I learned everything I know about cooking while living in Italy since I lived there my whole life until 1996. My biggest pizza mentor was in my hometown Sarno. For one year, I worked with a family who owned a pizzeria for two generations. They even built their own brick ovens.
Albert: What are your earliest memories of pizza? How have these memories influenced your pizza making today? What is your favorite pizza?
Chef Maurizio: My earliest memory of pizza is when I was a little boy and my parents took me to a local pizzeria. I thought it was the best food I had ever tasted (apart from my mom’s cooking of course).
This memory has influenced my pizza making today because I try to relive my memories of living in Italy through cooking. When people taste my pizza, I want them to have the same feeling I had when I first tried it. One of my favorite pizzas is Pizza Margherita. My absolute favorite when I am at home is Napoletana pizza made with all fresh ingredients. All my pizzas use only the freshest of ingredients.
Albert: What is your philosophy about making pizza? Are your pizzas influenced by any particular style of pizza? Have you been influenced by any pizzailo?
Chef Maurizio:: My philosophy is to make pizza as good as anything from Naples. My pizzas are not influenced by any particular style of pizza, but they have been influenced by the family of Tonino and Michele in Sarno because they taught me everything I need to know about pizza. They helped me develop my own feel in each pizza I make.
Albert: What advice would you give someone who wants to get into the pizza business?
Chef Maurizio:: I would suggest that someone who wants to get into the pizza business should go to Italy at least once and see how pizza is made in Napoli. Until you have tried their incredible pizza, you will have no baseline to work from.
Albert: Tell me a bit about your restaurants. Do they have the same menu? Do they both feature pizza?
Chef Maurizio: My first restaurant Grano Trattoria (in the West Village) has a wood burning brick oven which is used to make my authentic pizza. Although my restaurant Taverna di Bacco (on the Lower East Side) does not have a wood burning brick oven, it has a beautiful garden. Both of my restaurants have different menus but feature traditional Italian Cuisine.
Albert: Congratulations on your recent win on the Food Network Show Chopped. I understand you started filming at 6:00 AM and didn’t leave until midnight. How was that experience? What were your winning dishes? How were the judges?
Thank you! It was definitely a long day taping the Chopped episode, but it was well worth it! Being on Chopped was a great experience and I was really able to showcase my creativity and ability to cook under pressure. I wanted to stay true to my comfort food style and create laid-back homey dishes. The episode was all about cheese, so each dish required the use of at least two different types of cheese.
For the appetizer round, I had to use the mystery basket ingredients which were domed goat cheese, blue cheese, mostarda and guanciale. I used these ingredients to make Zuppa di Formaggio which is cheese soup with guanciale fat potatoes using thyme, cream and bread.
For the entrée round, the mystery basket ingredients were raclette, brie, chicken thighs and garlic scapes. I created Pollo alla Cacciatora which is chicken cacciatore with cheese mashed potatoes using red wine, onions and garlic.
For the dessert round, the mystery basket ingredients to use were manchego, garrotxa, fig spread and tarragon. I made Formaggio al Cioccolato which is a deconstructed cheese plate using chocolates, prosecco and almonds.
For a limited time, my restaurants are featuring the Chopped tasting menu with a wine pairing. Monday nights at Taverna di Bacco and Thursday nights at Grano Trattoria.
Overall this was a great learning experience and I am very lucky I was given the opportunity to be on Chopped. The judges were tough critics but I know they were doing their job and trying to find the best chef to be the newest Chopped Champion.
Albert: Any tips for the home pizza chef, who wants to make great pizza in their own kitchen? What is the secret to making great pizza?
Chef Maurizio:: Make sure you buy a good pizza stone! It is also important to have delicious pizza dough. If you live near Grano Trattoria, come stop by the restaurant and we can provide you with fresh dough to make your own pizza at home.
Albert: What next for you: Chef Maurizio Crescenzo? Will you be adding new dishes or pizza items to your restaurant’s menu?
Chef Maurizio:: I am always challenging myself in the kitchen. Whether I am cooking pasta, pizza or any other dish it is extremely important that each one is just right. For that reason, I am refining the menus at each restaurant as springtime is upon us. I am making sure that we continue to serve some of the best Italian cuisine in New York City.
Albert: Are you planning on opening any new restaurants?
Chef Maurizio:: I have no plans to open another restaurant at this time. Right now I have Grano in the West Village and Bacco on the Lower East Side and I ride my bike back and forth between the two locations throughout the day. That is more than enough for me! My family is very important to me and I like to put aside time to spend with my wife and twin daughters.
Albert: Why do you think pizza has become so popular? It is the ultimate comfort food in America… But it seems like in the last few years there has been an upturn in pizza popularity.
Chef Maurizio:: Pizza is the ultimate in convenience for the customer. Pizza has become so popular because it is an extremely tasty meal (with so many different varieties), but it is also quick and easy to eat on the go. At my restaurant people like to order pizza and take their time to savor the dish. I find that many customers will start off their meal with one of my specialty pizzas and then continue by ordering an entrée as their meal. We also find that pizza is also a great plate to share whilst having a pre-dinner cocktail. Pizza is something that can be had by one person or shared by many; it can be served as an appetizer, lunch, dinner or snack. There are endless possibilities when it comes to pizza and I think that is why people enjoy it so much.
You can discover Grano Trattoria
21 Greenwich Ave, New York, NY 10014
And Taverna Di Bacco
175 Ludlow St, New York, NY 10002
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