blogitto ergo sum

April 7, 2011

#176 – Bettolona, NYC. Eat, Drink, ENJOY

The king sent me there.  and i didn’t even know i knew a king.  but as far as Sando, owner/manager of Bettolona is concerned, i do.

when Andreas gave me the lay of the land, he pointed out Bettolona as his favorite and the best place nearby, recommending the food and the owner’s warm and welcoming attitude he did well.  all proved to be very much true.

My love story with Italian restaurants is longer than the ones i have with any other cuisine, Chinese included.

it started years ago, when i lived in Toronto.  there was that Italian restaurant, not far from the office where my bookkeeper and i had our lunches there now and then; dinner when she had to work late…  my expense reports  BTW, were always on time then – she managed to get a lot done in one day/month.  with time, i introduced other friends to the restaurant; all were happy with many returns.  eventually, i became a regular.  at first i was offered Sambuca on the house, which was politely yet always rejected.  Anise and I don’t meet. then it was desserts, “you must try this dish i made today”…  eventually, i stopped looking @ the menu and asked Mario – the chef/owner – to surprise me. disappointment was never present.  the game changer was, how predictable, a cup of cappuccino.  one evening, i asked to make my own.  “do you know how to use the machine?” was the skeptical question.  “of course i do” was my confident answer. pause, hesitation and “OK, but be careful.”

in an Italian restaurant, where all the staff is male, a gal behind the bar was a very unusual sight.  i had 4 pairs of eyes carefully watching me making that test cup.

i passed, nothing exploded, i didn’t burn myself.  there was a silent respect in the air.  only now, years later, i am ready to admit that it wasn’t my best cappuccino.  one needs to know a machine, the pressure of the steam…  first cup with a new machine can hardly ever be a good one.  two weeks later, i asked to volunteer in the kitchen, one evening a week.  i didn’t mind doing any and all dirty jobs, but Mario had to answer all my questions – that was the deal.  i went through evenings in which for 4 hours i cleaned shrimps.  other evenings were devoted to peeling and mincing garlic.  DO NOT RUB your eyes after such evening, unless you have a very good reason to cry and some sins to pay for.

being part of the kitchen scene, being a part of the flow of a restaurant evening, helping when a party required 40 servings of Chicken Parmigiana pronto was an amazing learning experience that completely changed my view of food making, efficiency, stress…  Conducting this orchestrated performance is no easy task.  in this world, deadlines and processes are measured in minutes, not in man weeks; you cannot delay launch time, a bug in your delivered product may easily be beyond fixing…  ever.  and you may lose more than one customer…

the immortal Swedish chef / Muppet show

i hold great respect for the chefs/managers who manage to schmooze with customers, never revealing the stress of “do i have enough chicken breast tonight to accommodate all these light eaters?”, “the couple in table 4 is having a fight, what can i do to make them happy?” “we may have half-cooked too much pasta tonight”, “i need another 4-people table NOW”, “i have to visit that one @ table 6 again – she is friends with the king”…

While taking my MBA, i convinced the school to offer us a business plan writing course.  i had to “recruit” enough students who’d commit to taking the class, convince the president of the school [Thank you Lyn] it should be part of the curriculum…  it was fun.  the business plan that my team wrote was for a restaurant.  P. said she wanted to open a restaurant and we went along with it.  the idea we finally agreed on was cool, still is; a noodle restaurant that offers noodle dishes of the world.  Fusion yet basic food in a bowl.  we were a fusion-ed team alright; one Thai, two Chinese, one Israeli.  i even created two dishes for our proof of concept testing/tasting dinner, one of them was to be the “house dessert” as i named it “noodles nest” as was the name of the restaurant to be.  My friend Vivian designed our logo pro bono.  it was an amazing learning experience.  nothing else would convince me as strongly that doing it right, with the quality and style that I’d want my restaurant to be, is as close to slavery as a business can be.  so many factors compute into becoming a success that it’s a gamble, and a very expensive one too.  more so when it’s your first restaurant.  the success rate of 2nd restaurant owners is dramatically higher.  sounds like any start-up land, doesn’t it?  i wonder if the success rate is similar, pretty sure the payoff in technology is greater than that of the food industry.

Enjoying Bettolona - Silvano's amazing cookbook, cappuccino & tiramisu

all these memories and insights run though my mind as i enjoy the food, the atmosphere and Sando’s company @ Bettolona.   Training last under Silvano from Da Silvano, the strong commitment to quality, simplicity, using the freshest ingredients and diversity is all present.  the menu offers something for everyone; and it’s something good.  i love the fact that they do not follow the trend of small portions that get lost in monster-size plates.  i hate it, and the small tables in most restaurants hate it too.  so normal size plates, great.  the portions though are tastefully generous.  in two of the meals i had, i ended up taking home part of my meal.

“so, what’s with the king?”  i asked  Sando in my last dinner there.  his answer demonstrates why he manages to create such a great atmosphere for the restaurant.  being a good people reader is key to knowing how to reach out to them, how to communicate with them.  “he always walks in with class and style, polite and friendly, yet maintains distance, smiles but…”  i couldn’t help laughing.  if you know the king, i think you’d agree with this description.  i, on the other hand, got no title, but more than enough attention, royal or not is arguable.

trying to characterize the clientele, i realized it’s practically impossible.  the diner featured in the the photos above was a photographer’s joy, but in no way a typical patron.  students, professionals, all the way to over dressed heavily old-fashioned jeweled patrons who enjoyed  the a concert in the Manhattan School of Music 3 blocks away; all shared the joy of eating.  having dinner served at 10:30 is nother pleasure i painfully miss in the valley.  and sometimes, in San Francisco too.

bottom line?  great restaurant, even if the location is a bit out of your way.  take #1, get off @ 125th street, and walk 3 minutes.  you can do it.

my last dinner before leaving the city

salad, pasta, dessert @ Bettolona

Swedish chef from:  thank you.



  1. Beautiful article!

    Comment by Sungmoon — April 7, 2011 @ 09:20 | Reply

  2. […] had my pizza AHA moment when i volunteered in a Toronto Italian restaurant [see #176 – Bettolona, NYC. Eat, Drink, ENJOY].  for his birthday, Mario, the chef-owner, had a pizza party for friends at the restaurant after […]

    Pingback by #179 – pizza, my way [part I] « blogitto ergo sum — May 4, 2011 @ 01:42 | Reply

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