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Meet the Man Behind the Dinnerware at the Best Restaurant in the World

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"We played in a band together," ceramicist Jono Pandolfi—who designed a line of handmade dinnerware and serveware exclusively for our Shop—tells me matter-of-factly in his New Jersey studio. The other party in this "we" scenario is restaurateur Will Guidara. Along with his partner Daniel Humm, he's behind New York City restaurants The NoMad, The NoMad Bar, and Eleven Madison Park. "We were called Hydrant."

Our exclusive line with Jono Pandolfi, including a set of 3 modern serving trays, a shallow serving bowl, and a smaller size of our platter.

Unbeknownst to the pair, high school-aged Will and college-aged Jono were starting the beginning of a long creative partnership that would result in a collaboration on the tabletops of some of the world's best restaurants. In fact, the world's best restaurant, according to the annual list put together by industry experts.

Food52 Serving Platter, by Jono Pandolfi

Food52 Serving Platter, by Jono Pandolfi

From $80
Food52 Handthrown Mug, by Jono Pandolfi

Food52 Handthrown Mug, by Jono Pandolfi

Food52 Serving Bowl, by Jono Pandolfi

Food52 Serving Bowl, by Jono Pandolfi

Food52 Dinnerware, by Jono Pandolfi

Food52 Dinnerware, by Jono Pandolfi

From $34

Topping the 2017 list? Eleven Madison Park. An international panel of more than 1,000 chefs, food editors, and cookbook authors deemed the restaurant "the perfect partnership of outstanding hospitality and exquisite food in an iconic setting" where Will and Daniel "have put their lives into breaking down the walls between dining room and kitchen" for a "harmonious" experience.

And Jono Pandolfi's handmade plates, platters, and bowls are all over that harmonious dining room.

Jono's pieces on the tables of Eleven Madison Park. Photos by City Foodsters, T.Tseng

Since opening his own studio in 2010 and landing on the tables of The NoMad (thanks to his longstanding friendship with Will), Jono's name has grown in reputation, positioning him as a go-to ceramicist for celebrated restaurants who are relaxing the concept of "upscale dining." At Eleven Madison Park, the focus is hospitality: a welcoming, inclusive experience where you don't feel like you can't drop a crumb on the table.

Atop earthy, textured clay and soft neutral glazes, their vibrant dishes are given a note of warmth, rather than the austere contrast of a white plate. That warmth translates to the experience as a whole—like you're dining with friends as opposed to invited into an exclusive club.

Putting the "hand" in handmade.
Putting the "hand" in handmade. Photo by Kayla Ramsey/Gear Patrol

Jono likes to bring his chef clients to the studio where they can see his small (yet incredibly efficient) team at work, and come to understand the limitations of their output. His clients understand the strain of a specialty request, so Jono can stick to his roughly 50 molds for 50 different available shapes.

He's not been without a handful of very specific commissions, though.

He sketches for me what he considers the most difficult request he's been given, coincidentally by Eleven Madison Park: a two-piece tower, the top dish holding a delicately layered tiramisu and hiding a shallow dish of melted chocolate beneath. Jono's creation added a dramatic, whimsical flair to the presentation (which we hear tasted great, too).

Left: A sketch of what Jono considers his most difficult commission ever; Right: The dry erase board that keeps the team on track (see if you can find Food52!)

On the quietly industrious floor of the studio, thousands of pieces are fired and shipped to the likes of Ian Schrager's new Public Hotel, the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills, and Jean-Georges, keeping the team extremely busy. Jono spends a limited amount of time selling directly to customers—our is the only shop he works with (lucky for us!)—because his output is limited, often requiring a lead time of six to eight weeks.

The distant New York skyline out of Jono Pandolfi's New Jersey studio
The distant New York skyline out of Jono Pandolfi's New Jersey studio

However, Jono's output capacity will dramatically increase very soon. The studio has a new kiln—one that took four months to build. I visited just a few days after the building permit for its operation came through, after a frustrating three-month long wait. "If you had been here last week, you would have met with a very bitter guy," he says, but I got to see the giddy version of Jono, excitedly describing the kiln's superiority to his existing ones in use: It gets hotter, fires and cools faster, is more energy efficient, and can run around the clock.

The man himself.
The man himself. Photo by Kayla Ramsey/Gear Patrol

When I asked about aspirations for other types of design, he fully admits that restaurant dinnerware is what supports the business and that has to remain his focus for the time being. "There's an experimental side to me," he says, one that is nurtured through his teaching at the Parsons School of Design, where the unbridled ideas of his Experimental Ceramics students keep his eyes and mind open.

He talks of designing architectural lighting and selling his pieces in boutiques, but for the time being, "My job is glazing and keeping my team happy."

And happy they are, his team, who he laughingly compares to "the original Grateful Dead." Like a band, but with pottery.

We caught Jono Pandolfi's team in their throwing, firing, and glazing glory. Watch them go, below!

Video by Kyle Orosz

Tags: Makers, New York City