This September, a colleague and I found ourselves crossing Tenth Avenue outside of Chelsea Market around noon on a Wednesday. Our destination was the restaurant Del Posto, our goal,
a very leisurely weekday lunch research. Surely it would just take an hour or something. (Playing hooky + denying it = very New York.)
But this was to be Italy. We passed through heavy doors onto a cold marble floor. A lacquered staircase pours into the center of the room, begging for Rhett Butler to descend it. Somewhere, obviously, hands graze a piano. But it was an early lunch on a weekday, the colossal space (which can seat 400 guests and is staffed by half that amount) mostly empty.
"It feels like... Las Vegas," my coworker leaned in to say as we were led to our table. I squinted and pictured one of the guys from the Hangover coming down the stairs behind Rhett, which seemed to fit. I could see Lila Cerullo paying this place a visit, during her hifalutin days as Mrs. Caracci. Big business deals definitely happen at Del Posto. Parents are wooed by New York. People get engaged.
As it were, a couple of grandmother-types eyed us suspiciously from a corner table.
Certain restaurant secrets are best kept. What goes on when the last guest leaves, for example. Or any quantitative truth about the amount of butter used in an whoa-nelly pasta dish. Having a hunch is one thing. It'll seduce you. Knowing for sure might kill off your appetite.
But the glossy new The Del Posto Cookbook pulls back the curtain to the restaurant's kitchen, exposing its secrets, and keeps dancing. It's written by Executive Chef Mark Ladner, and embodies the notoriously lavish restaurant dedicated to Italian fine dining (one of a number of Italian eateries in New York owned by power partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich) to a T.
You'll stir 14 tablespoons of butter into the Orecchiette with Red Lamb Sausage and Carrot Purée, well into your fourth hour of preparing it. You'll individually peel cherry tomatoes for a sub-recipe to a side dish. You'll find yourself, otherwise a sensible person, pulling out six different pots so you can make a soup known as Le Vitrue.
In every case, it will be worth it. You'll be winded, but charmed—with Ladner's thoughtful narration, the results of your toils, and the umpteen new ideas for toying about in the kitchen you'll have acquired by trying it.
Too many cookbooks that are spun out of fine-dining restaurants are just keepsakes, something to buy your bedazzled wife after the vacation ends and slide forevermore into the bookshelf. But the Del Posto Cookbook—with its logical serving sizes and recipe structure, frank and friendly tone, and tips on sourcing and substituting unusual ingredients—is actually written for use by a home cook.
Well, a home cook who has a whole afternoon to kill attempting a dish from one of the best and fanciest restaurants in New York City.
"We envisioned a restaurant defined by its grandeur," Joe Bastianich explains in his foreword, and he, Batali, and Ladner pulled out all the stops to make it such. A precious half-cup of warm broth with a masa-flour matzo ball greets you once you've ordered, complementary. Our waiter explained that it's made from simmering 90 capons. The kitchen makes a batch every three days.
A capon is an old, castrated rooster—considered much more flavorful than an average chicken due to its mature fat content. You can buy one for about $60 at the Meat Hook, a fancy butcher in Brooklyn.
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We knew this. We kept straight faces while the waiter explained every step of the process, nodding dramatically while doing simple math very slowly, the way only editors can do: Every week this restaurant makes $10,000 worth of chicken broth and gives it away before the bread course. Grubstreet calls it "the richest, purest, most soulful gulp of soup you’ve ever had."
In 2010, Sam Sifton gave Del Posto a rave four-star review in the New York Times—the first time an Italian restaurant had been awarded that distinction in 40 years. And yet the menu, the staff's warmth and extreme attention to detail, everything has been even further refined since then, Ladner makes clear in the introduction to the book. Eating at Del Posto these days, you can believe it.
The recipe for their capon broth isn't in the cookbook, however, nor is the otherworldly sphere of cream and butter served alongside the complimentary baguette-grissini hybrid to each guest—both of which were highlights of our meal. (And both free with the reasonably-priced, three-course $45 lunch tasting menu, in addition to a whole plate of varied appetizers from the chef and sweets after dinner, to boot.)
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Perhaps those recipes fall under "secrets best kept." But most everything else we sampled, from Vitello Tonnato with Olive Crostone, Fried Capers, Chives, and Lime Cells to dessert, is there in writing for you to recreate.
The cookbook feels quite a lot like the restaurant: Gleaming and dramatic, classically-inspired but not stuck in tradition, surprisingly approachable. There's no real precedent for Del Posto, no other no-holds-barred Italian fine dining establishment in New York—and you'll have no pretense, crossing that now-bustling street under the High Line, that the restaurant you're walking towards is some storied, crumbling bastion of Old World Manhattan.
It's been around for a decade, but as long as Ladner's at the helm it's clear that Del Posto will always feel crisp, refreshing, new.
The aforementioned orecchiette dish was the first thing I tackled from the cookbook: It wasn't as crazy a thing to attempt as, say, the 100-Layer Lasagne (truly) or Le Vitrue, but certainly ambitious. I'd tried it at our lunch at the restaurant—a creamy, unusually bright fantasy of a primi. And the memory of it was basically ruining every dinner for me since. Del Posto is "a restaurant almost defined by its impracticality," Bastianich states in his foreword; I had no illusions that recreating the pasta would be easy.
The lamb sausage you make from scratch, in the food processor. And the pasta, too: I had to use every ounce of upper body strength I could muster to knead the dry, shaggy dough into a "cohesive mass" before slicing off cubes of it and pressing them, individually, into little ear shapes. A trio of toppers include a carrot purée, made by blending and simmering them with tangerine oil, and coarse rye bread crumbs, which you'll toast and process and then sift—to free the crunchy bits from the resulting dust.
Oh right, and you'll melt two sticks of butter into the sauce and pasta, a quantity designed to serve for our six persons, right at the end. I'm not one to skimp on butter, but, shamefully, I just added one. Even then—even with my kitchen in tatters and my homespun orecchiette in all kinds of deformed shapes—it was show-stopping. (As in T.V.-show stopping: My boyfriend and I turned off an episode of Peaky Blinders to pause dramatically over the dish.)
In flavor and texture and ability to delight, the dish was exactly like I remember it in the restaurant (except that at home, with the pan within reach, I ate a whole lot more of it). Seeing what went into creating it was... a little bit shocking, but also amazing and empowering. All of this is just, I think, what Ladner wants.
You aren't left to drown, however. A deceptively succinct "note" follows each recipe, stating shortcuts and ingredient substitutions, and something about its brevity makes the suggestions feel doable: I had forgotten to have the butcher grind my lamb shoulder, so I cubed, half-froze, and ground the meat myself based on the suggestion. I mixed orange zest and extra-virgin olive oil instead of trying to source tangerine oil (Eataly didn't have it—heads up, Mario!).
For the same meal I made the Snipped Herb and Lettuce Salad, because I'd been curious to see how Del Posto prepared simple greens but hadn't wanted to waste one of my three courses on salad. The dressing, inspired by a Bellini, is so smart: You blitz a whole peach, pitted, with water, citron vinegar (or 1:1 OJ to Champagne vinegar, per the note), oil, salt, and sugar—ideally it's an overripe peach, but I actually loved what this method did for the hard one I called in for the task—for a tart, zippy, pulpy vinaigrette. Over a tumble of Bibb lettuce, spicy greens, and herbs, it's a sunshiny start.
There's no doubt, skimming over these recipes, that they come from a tightly-run restaurant kitchen staffed by culinary school grads. To make the Tomato Raisins, a dish that's categorized under Secondi but, resulting in maybe a half-cup of food, is an ingredient itself or a garnish at best, you'll first score each of a pound of cherry tomatoes with an X on its bum. (Tedium at its finest.) Then you'll blanch them, toss them in oil, and roast them at 200ºF for three hours total. They sweeten and shrivel into slippery tomato candies—you'll wish the recipe made twice as many—and are the kind of do-it-while-you-do-something else recipe that can transform any ho-hum meal.
I made the Scafata, too, a dish of overcooked Swiss chard (that's how the name translates, you're told), solely because it was one of the few recipes that sounded like it would be boring. But after a half hour of letting the stems and leaves wilt, I did as the recipe asked and tipped in a can of chickpeas and all my precious tomato raisins—and suddenly the greens were deeply sweet, unrecognizable.
There's no suggested substitution if you don't want to make the Tomato Raisins to add to the Scafata—an indicator that it's not really worth making at all, in that case. (Not that plain cooked chard is a bad thing, they just wouldn't serve it at Del Posto.)
As Ryan Sutton put it in his Piglet review of Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune cookbook, after her widely-loved restaurant of the same name, "One of the most important things about the hospitality industry is that we should be teaching young chefs (and home cooks) powerful ideas and techniques that can shape the way they view food." (He assessed that her cookbook fell short in that regard.)
The Del Posto Cookbook might not be approachable, or for the everyday—considering that a side of Swiss chard takes the better part of five hours to get on the table—and there is no coddling whatsoever, no five-layer lasagne for the newbie cook. The plates and the way the food is plated in the photos scream, "order's up!" rather than, "come and get it!"; there are no farmhouse tables or carafes of rosé to give the illusion that you'll be sitting down to an elegent dinner in twenty minutes.
Rather, this book is Ladner saying watch and learn, try this and see what you might take away from it, exactly the way a chef would. Post-Del Posto, I can make orecchiette, and I've memorized the Mark Ladner-approved recipe for tomato sauce (blend up whole, peeled, canned tomatoes yourself and simmer them with lots of garlic and a little olive oil, salt, and sugar for over an hour). I understand the basic gist of grinding meats and spices in a food processor to make sausage, and next I'm going to cook some oil-slicked mushrooms at 200ºF for four hours and see what comes of it.
What I'm not going to do is cook from Del Posto every day. Or on a weeknight, ever. But when I itch for real Italian food, or for a bit of a project in the kitchen, or even, heck, for a confidence-booster, I'll take it off the shelf and let the pages fall open.
There's a certain complacency in contradiction throughout the Del Posto brand that I find delightful (and, like our denial about lunch, very New York): In his foreword, Mario calls Mark Ladner's cooking "decidedly low-tech" but the waiter told me that ball of cream and butter was a feat of molecular gastronomy.
The restaurant doesn't pretend, by way of antiqued furniture or an uptown address, to be an institution your parents might have visited, but the design is classically-inspired (see: all the marble and crystal, the temple-like architecture ceilings, that plantation-style staircase). And yet, you won't sense irony or apology when you dine there: Del Posto isn't some evolved post-modern statement from Batali and Bastianich. It's just Italian at heart, with a New York upbringing.
Into our third hour of lunch at Del Posto, we tried to decline dessert. "No, no, the chef will not let me let you leave without dessert," our waiter stated, smiling somewhat fiercely, and so we stayed, and ate it. (It was very good.) But everything I'd heard about Del Posto was that they catered to the whims of the diners, drumming up vegan tasting menus and no-artichoke dinners as called for.
You might want to complain, a few hours into making Tomato Raisins, but they're so good and so worth it you'll make them again.
Like the sound of it? Shop The Del Posto Cookbook here.