Henry Rich, a mint man who wanted to return to his roots, along with his cousin Julian Brizzi, a New York restaurant lifer who most recently managed Frankie’s and Prime Meats, and chef Joe Pasqualetto, a veteran of some of the city’s finest kitchens, together opened Rucola on a quiet corner in Boerum Hill this past April. The restaurant features seasonal Northern Italian cuisine, and the neighborhood apparently likes it – on a normal night the room is packed with regulars.
Rucola is hosting its first Thanksgiving this year. We spoke with Henry about their plans for the holiday. And Thanksgiving slackers takes note: reservations are still available.
So Henry, what do you traditionally do for Thanksgiving? And now that you’ve got a restaurant, will that change?
I always spend Thanksgiving with my mom’s family, and I’ve done that every single year of my life. Julian is my cousin on my mom’s side. I’ve spent Thanksgiving with them for thirty one years in a row.
Julian and I were both born right near here, and lived here for the first few years of our lives. So we had some early Thanksgivings here in Brooklyn, although I have no memory of it. After a few years our families moved to the suburbs, but it’s kind of cool that we both independently found our way back to Brooklyn as adults, then got together to open Rucola, and that we now have a family business together and we’re able to keep that Thanksgiving streak going by bringing our whole family here to have Thanksgiving in our own restaurant right near where we were born.
How did you come to open Rucola? Did you have restaurant experience?
I had been in the food business, but in a very different way. I started a company right after college. It was called Oral Fixation Mints – we made breath mints. Originally it was just supposed to support my music career, but it took off.
With the mint company, we had this idea that we’d use the highest quality ingredients and the best packaging, and just have a product that was far far superior to anything else out there. We wanted to spend less money on marketing and more on the raw materials, to make a great mint that people would love.
Being in the food industry, I was always being exposed to all these great new trends in local foods, organic foods, sustainable foods – but they were all things that didn’t really have a role in the confection business. There were all these really cool companies doing really great things with food, but for all kinds of reasons, I couldn’t tie any of that into our business.
The reality that I found was that while we did get a lot of exposure and were sold all around the world, it wasn’t an industry that I really wanted to be in. The confection market doesn’t value quality or originality or creativity. All our innovations were quickly ripped off by larger companies. It was all about making your product as cheaply as possible, having a huge advertising and marketing presence, and huge distribution. It was all about mass marketing and market share.
The mint business was also spread far and wide. We had operations all over the world. I’d go to work and look at the computer and email all day.
I sold the company last March and immediately wanted to open a restaurant. A restaurant offers kind of the opposite of all that. I wanted to find something that could be both a solid business and something that I really wanted to be involved in on a quality level. We can use the highest quality ingredients, have a beautifully designed space, and great food and people actually appreciate that. It’s not just a useless exercise with an ulterior motive. It just seemed like the most obvious way to go to the wall with quality and originality, and to create something that people can really appreciate.
And it’s exciting. With a restaurant you can see in real time how your guests are reacting to what you’re putting out there. It’s so multi-faceted. You’re offering a total experience. It’s not just food, it’s the ambience, lighting, service.
And I really wanted to do something with Julian. He’s sort of dedicated his whole life to the restaurant industry. He went from being a host at Gramercy Tavern to working at various other restaurants, to becoming a manager at Prime Meats.
So that’s how Rucola came to be. We opened on April 28th.
What sort of food do you do?
Northern Italian, for the most part, with a seasonal approach.
We don’t have one of those tags on the menu saying, “We use local ingredients as much as possible,” because it’s easy to say that and not really mean it. “Where possible” could mean “Where profitable,” or “When easy.”
And I’m not necessarily married to local food as much as I am to sustainability and quality. If someone produces a great product in a great way in a different region or a different country, we have no problem using it here. But we do use a lot of local produce because the quality tends to be a lot higher. What I really like about working with local producers is that you’re able to avoid the big industrialized mass-distribution food system that I was a part of with the mint business, because that system is not focused on quality. I like working with people from around here or from anywhere who are producing the highest quality products in a sustainable way.
So what are you doing for your first Thanksgiving at Rucola?
Because we’re in our first year, everything is new. We’re doing everything for the first time. We recently switched over to our fall menu. Now we’re getting into winter and it’ll all change again. It’s exciting.
We do Northern Italian food here, so with Thanksgiving, the big discussion was really how much of an Italian influence we wanted to bring to the meal, since it’s really the quintessential American holiday. In the end we decided to stick to more of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, with a few Italian accents. We thought that would work as long as we kept our usual focus on the highest quality and ingredients.
We’re doing an antipasti plate, an arugula salad which is kind of a signature for us, heritage breed turkey, rosemary focaccia stuffing, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, braised greens, cranberry sauce…our pastry chef is making all our pies.
Our chef, Joe Pasqualetto, and the kitchen team have been doing Thanksgiving for many years. They’ve know exactly what they’re doing.
Joe is one of the many chefs who’ve worked in some of the best kitchens in Manhattan, who eventually decide to come to Brooklyn to seek out an ingredient-driven place serving a really high level of food in a less formal, more of a neighborhood kind of atmosphere. He’s cooked at places like Daniel, Café Boulud, Oceana, Gilt and a bunch of others. He’s been cooking in top kitchens around the city for fifteen years. He’s known in the industry as a great chef.
Do you know that show called ‘Munchies?’ They basically have well-known chefs take their staffs out to eat at non-famous restaurants. They recently featured April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig, The Breslin and The John Dory on a recipe recently, and she brought her staff here. She chose it because she knows Joe and how talented he is. She came here to eat his food, not because of Julian or me. As much of a dream as it is to have this family business, this place is really about Joe. He creates really special food and we’re very lucky to have him.
So do you still have reservations available for Thanksgiving?
We do. We’re going to be open from noon until ten pm, so we’ll basically be serving all day and we’ve got room. Our Thanksgiving prix fixe is $45 per person. Kids twelve and under can eat for $20. And like I said, we’ll all be eating here too. Julian and I are really excited to be able to host our whole family at our own restaurant for the first time, just a few blocks from where we lived as little kids. It’s a great thing, a special thing, for us.
Rucola is located at 190 Dean St (corner of Bond St), in Boerum Hill. For a Thanksgiving reservation, call 718 576 3209