Most restaurants have a moment. They arrive on the scene, throw open their doors, and hopefully, with some good execution and a little luck, generate a buzz. Most of the time, they eventually come back to earth, a few months, a few years, or a few chef changes later. It’s rare to find a restaurant that strikes that elusive combination of good food, ambiance, service, and intangible charm, that has regulars lining up out the door, willing to wait forty five minutes or an hour for a table, night after night, for sixteen years.
Noodle Pudding, an Italian restaurant at the far northern reaches of Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights, is just that. Far from the media spotlight and the glamorous sheen that can come with high concepts and pedigreed chefs, Noodle Pudding, with no website, Facebook page, Twitter account, or portfolio of glittering reviews, has been packing in regulars for almost two decades.
We sat down with owner Antonio Migliaccio in search of the secret to the restaurant’s long run of success.
So Antonio, what’s the story behind this place? How did you come to open Noodle Pudding?
I grew up in Italy, on an island called Ischia, in the Gulf of Naples. We had thirteen people in the house, between my aunts, uncles, sister, and cousins. When I look back now…we had nothing. I thought the whole world was like that when I was growing up, but when I look back now, we had nothing. I grew up with no electric lights. I remember my father rolling up the tobacco in his rolling paper, lifting the cover off the oil lamp, and leaning over to light the cigarette at the end of the night. I remember that.
Years later when I went back to visit, they had gotten electricity and I bought the first refrigerator for them. They didn’t use it! They said, “We don’t need it.” Oh my God, I used to get so mad. At night my father would unplug it! I’d say, “You can’t unplug it!” He’d say, “So we’ll put it on again tomorrow – it needs a break, like the rest of us!” It’s just crazy to think how far we have come.
We were in a remote area, in the countryside. I was raised making bread and making wine. I baked bread every day. It’s all I did. I started rolling dough when I was four or five years old, but it wasn’t just rolling the bread. We had an old wood-burning oven, in the main room of our house. We all slept in the back room. Every day, we had to go out and find the wood for the oven, chop the wood, heat up the oven, keep it hot, roll the dough, bake the bread, and deliver the bread to the little shops who would sell it one loaf at a time. I hated it! It’s all I did. But that’s how I grew up.
When I look back, eating was the most important part of every day. We had nothing, when I look back, but we had everything. We had everything that all of these people right now are looking to get. We had some of the best food. My aunts, my mother, they were always cooking. They never stopped. Ten different dishes, more, every day. That’s what they did. It was always to celebrate the moment that we ate, to make every meal, every dish, special.
We all ate together, every meal. We all had to wash our hands before we ate. That was my mother’s obsession. There would always be a real cotton tablecloth on the table. And we’d all sit down and eat. Together.
So is that where you began to learn how to cook?
That planted the seeds in me with food and cooking, but I never thought about it at the time. I would cook with them all the time. We cooked a lot of stuff. They’d say, “Don’t put too much wine in there, Antonio. Or, not too much garlic!” We didn’t have a gas stove. We cooked on charcoals – we made our own charcoal from the wood we used in the oven to bake the bread.
But I was tempted to come to America because I didn’t want to bake the bread anymore.
Did you know anyone when you came here?
My older brother was here, in Brooklyn, in Carroll Gardens. He was a longshoreman. So I came here to Carroll Gardens and I became a longshoreman. Everyone was a longshoreman then. It’s changed a lot. Everything changes. I worked at Pier 1, underneath the bridge, loading and unloading the ships. So many ships! There’s no trace of it now. It’s a park.
Even way back then, I liked to cook. Food has opened a lot of doors for me, even back then. I remember one time I went to the market and they had all this beautiful zucchini. I made all this zucchini. It was a lot. I made too much. So I brought it to work and everybody had some. I made fried fish with the zucchini and I brought it for lunch down to the pier. We all sat down at the table. Everybody had some. They loved it! And all of a sudden the guy who gives out the jobs each day tells me, “You bring lunch, I’ll give you work again tomorrow!”
So I started to cook more. I’d try to knock their socks off. I’d make escarole and beans one day, something else the next.
When did you first start to think about opening a restaurant?
At that same time. I started to think about it more and more, because at the docks it was what they called a ‘shape up’ job. That means you’d go in the morning and wait with everyone else and some days you’d get picked to work and some days you wouldn’t. If you knew the right people you’d get more work. If you didn’t, you’d get less.
Back then things were a little different than they are now, but whatever I ate, in a restaurant or from one of the neighborhood shops, I always said to myself, “I could do better than this. I could make it better. If these guys are making money doing this, I could make money doing this.”
So the restaurant bug kicked in right away. I said to myself, “One day, I’m going to find a way to make my own food, to make a living.” And that’s what brought me to where I am.
When I was working as a longshoreman, I worked in the morning on the piers, and I worked at night in restaurants, to learn – to get to know about the mechanics of running a restaurant. I worked in several restaurants, nice restaurants, and the food was never good! They didn’t respect the food. The fish wasn’t fresh, the vegetables weren’t fresh. It was just sad.
I remember I worked at night as a busboy at a place in Manhattan. A long time ago. It was on 55th and 3rd. It was a big Italian restaurant, a nice restaurant, called La Maganette. They used to serve caponata, an easy thing to make, out of a can! I’m working in this nice restaurant, and they’re opening cans of Progresso in the kitchen! I was like, “What are you doing!?” At every step of the way, whatever I ate, at all the restaurants I worked at, the food wasn’t good. So the quality of the food that was around me, that was being served in what were supposed to be nice restaurants, built my confidence. I knew I could do better.
Things have changed now. People are more conscious of what they eat. It’s much better now, but it’s very recent. Even the wine is recent. People can appreciate wine now, but that’s recent. I’ll never forget – at La Maganette, people would come in and order something like…a steak pizzaiola, which is just a steak cooked with tomatoes and oregano. And they’d order something like…a Rusty Nail – this cocktail made with Scotch and Drambuie – to drink with it! I would think, “What the hell is the matter with you!?” You don’t drink a Scotch with your steak! It would drive me crazy.
Back then, I thought, “Maybe it’s gonna be a frustrating project to open a restaurant. Because how am I going to make them eat how I want them to eat? How am I going to tell them they can’t drink Scotch when I give them a linguini with clams? It just doesn’t make sense with that!”
But thank God, things have changed. It all changed quite fast, actually. Now people can appreciate a glass of wine with a steak. It’s much easier now to convince people of things. Like a nice piece of fish. Everyone used to want it fried. Now you don’t have to fry it. A beautiful piece of fish, just poached with olive oil and parsley? People can enjoy that now.
So is Noodle Pudding your first restaurant?
This is the fourth attempt.
Attempt? Haven’t you been here for sixteen years? You still think of it as an attempt?
I always say ‘attempt,’ because in this business, you never know.
What were the other places?
The first one, we never opened. I had a partner, and we bought a building in Bay Ridge. That was in the early 80’s. We were doing all the construction ourselves. One day, some guy came in. He says, “You the contractor?” I said, kidding, “Yeah, I’m the contractor.” He says, “You know if they’re gonna sell this place?” I say, “Why, you interested?” He says, “Yeah, I’m interested. I’m looking to buy.”
To make a long story short, we ended up selling him the place for four hundred thousand. We made about a hundred and twenty thousand dollar profit. In a year! So we went away with the money. That was the first restaurant. It never opened, but it was a big success! [laughter]
Then I opened a very small place on Court Street called Tiramisu. There were four or five tables. I cooked there. After a couple of years another place became available at Court and Kane. It’s still a restaurant now, called Watty & Meg. That was a lot bigger. I started by opening it myself, but things happened during the construction and I needed more money. So I took a partner in.
Relationships with partners can be tough. Relationships are very difficult between anybody. Between father and son, mother and daughter, husband and wife, business partners…it’s hard. You can mean well. You try to do things that you think are helping the other person, but you’re not helping. If a dish I made didn’t look the way my partner would have done it, it was a big problem. Things get heated up, and you walk out. It happens all the time.
So we broke up. We got divorced. We’re still friends now. You get over it. But I said, “You know what, this is no good. I gotta open something myself.”
I found this place after that. I’ve been here since 1995, so eighteen years or so.
So Noodle Pudding was the first place that was really yours and yours alone.
That’s what I had planned, but I had this friend, Sandro Fioriti. Sandro was a big chef. In my opinion, he was the best – the one who understood how food should be executed the best. In my opinion, the best chef in the world! I wanted to make him a partner and keep him with me, because I loved his cooking, but the man is crazy. He’s insane. He had fights with everybody. He was here with me at the beginning. Me and him opened this place. We were both in the kitchen, together.
He has his own restaurant now, up on 81st Street by 2nd Avenue – Sandro’s, it’s called. But he was here with me at the beginning. Nobody could cook better than Sandro. He cooks old fashioned, and he knows how to put it on the plate. You know how he puts it on the plate? He puts it on the plate. That’s it. Nothing fancy. And it looks good. It’s made to eat – you look at food made to eat, it’s beautiful.
Sandro made the best porchetta. I’ll never forget it – I had a guy at table four. A big guy. You could tell just from looking at him, he was one of those guys who loved to eat. He had the porchetta with broccoli rabe. He started eating. After a few bites he stood up. He said, “Excuse me! Question. Who made this?” I thought he was going to complain. I say, “Is everything all right?” He says, “For God’s sake, this is four star food!” [laughter]. I swear to God. That’s what he said! It was so simple, so perfect. Sandro’s a good chef. But he’s insane!
We were both cooking together. Sandro was officially a chef. He had worked in famous restaurants in Italy. Since then he’s worked in big restaurants here.
After Sandro left, I was curious to see how these chefs from culinary school did things. I never went to culinary school, so I wanted to see what these professional culinary school chefs knew that I didn’t know. I wanted to see how these big chefs cook. And you know, those guys can really cook. But you know what I realized? Cooking is not that hard. It’s simple, really. I already knew how to cook. What happens at the Culinary Institute is, they distort simplicity to justify their existence. It’s crazy! They try to make something so simple, so complicated!
I have no culinary experience. I don’t need it. You get sardines? They’re fresh? They’re beautiful? What are you going to do with them? What? You need to go to school to learn how to make sardines!? No. You don’t do anything. Maybe you take the bones out of them. Maybe not. If you want, you can put some mint and a little bit of breadcrumbs inside. You stick them in the oven, you take them out, you eat them. I mean, what do you want to do with them? It’s crazy. You don’t need to go to school.
But you doubted your skills though, early on here?
Always, every day I doubt myself. Every day. At that time, I was worried that there was something that I didn’t know about cooking, that I should know. But there wasn’t.
I don’t mean to sound like a snob or anything, but I was reading about Picasso once, what he said about painting. Please, by no means think I’m trying to compare myself to somebody like that. He just said something that I found interesting. He said, after he learned how to become a great painter, after he had perfected his skills, he had to forget all of that so he could paint like he was a kid.
And that stayed with me. I had to forget all of that so I could cook like when I was six years old. I had to cook like I always did, like my mother and aunts cooked at home with the thirteen of us around the table. You have to sort of forget about all of the rules and regulations and just be spontaneous and cook. It’s all about simplicity.
The style of food I try to make is a lot like the kind I was eating at the table when I was a kid in Ischia. Even if I’m using an ingredient that my mother or my aunt would never have seen, they would understand it. They would prepare it the same way. That’s what I base everything on.
So what I learned was that you don’t have to be a chef. You don’t have to go to culinary school. You don’t have to even think about cooking. You don’t have to make a big deal about it. You don’t have to scare everyone into thinking it’s a big thing. You just have to have great ingredients and you cook!
So let’s talk about the food. You said you have to have good ingredients to work with. Where do you go for the good stuff?
You have to know people. And me? I like to go to the market. I go to the Hunt’s Point market, up in the Bronx. I look forward to going to the market. It’s a little bit like a degenerate gambler going to Atlantic City. For me, going to the market is like going to Atlantic City. I’m always looking for the biggest score.
I like to look at the spinach, the lettuce, the tomatoes. A lot of the best stuff goes to fancy grocery stores in Manhattan. The fancy grocery stores and the fancy restaurants, they like to buy it all up.
One day, I’m at the market. My tomato guy says, “Come here, Tony. Look at what I got for you in the back. I got a return, from Zabar’s.” Now, ‘return’ is like a bad word. Somebody refused his tomatoes. But it’s a freakin’ supermarket. They have to look good. They don’t have to look real. They don’t have to taste good. They have to look like they’re plastic. Because they have these bright lights shining down on them. All the ones with a tiny little spot on them, the tiniest little thing, they send back.
If a tomato has a tiny little spot, they can’t take it. That’s where I come in. There’s nothing wrong with a little spot. It’s a beautiful tomato! You kidding me? You cut it off, eat it, it’s beautiful! So all those beautiful tomatoes with a little spot on them come back, and I get them for next to nothing! How can I not go to the market? That’s what I live for!
I know which way to go in there. I know who to see, what to do, and when you know how it works, going to the market becomes…what you love to do.
I used to love the Fulton Fish Market when it was over there, across the bridge. I used to go over there at two thirty, three o’clock in the morning. Over the bridge to pick up my fish, back here, throw them downstairs in the refrigerator, go back home and sleep. Can’t do it anymore. I used to love that fish market. It was a kind of old world place. The fishing boats would come in and the fish would come off the boat. Now you gotta go to the Bronx. The fish come off trucks instead of boats now. It’s crazy. I don’t want to have to get my fish off a truck in the Bronx!
I went to a dock on Long Island when I wanted to buy some Long Island calamari. They wouldn’t sell it to me. They wouldn’t let me buy it. They said they had to sell it all to a distributor. They told me, “You have to find a distributor.” I couldn’t believe it. I was standing there on the dock. The calamari was right there in front of me, coming off the boats. I said, “What do you mean you can’t sell it to me!?”
So I buy fish from the fish guys at the farmers market in the summer. Those guys are fishermen. They catch the fish, bring it to the market, and I buy it. I made a deal with the guy. I buy whatever he has left at the end of the day. Even if I don’t need it, I buy it, so he can trust me. If he sells it pound by pound at the market, he makes more money. But whatever he has left, he brings it to me and I buy it. Scallops, flounder, fluke, all from Long Island. Really good fish. Fresh fish. And then we maneuver so we can sell it. If there’s a lot of fish, it’s all fish specials for a few days. No meat. That’s the operational part of it.
And I have a friend who’s a fisherman. He brings by what he catches. He catches striped bass, bluefish, fluke. He’s out there all year. In Montauk. That’s what he does. He’s a fisherman. So help me God, sometimes when he brings his fish here, they’re still moving. I gut them, fillet them, put them on the grill and serve them with a beautiful green salad. Nothing like it. Simplest thing in the world and there’s nothing like it.
People can’t believe it, it’s so good. They say, “Where did you get this fish?” You know what it is? It’s fresh. I don’t do anything fancy with it. It’s just fresh. And most people never get to eat fish that fresh, so they don’t know why it’s so good. They don’t understand it just has to be fresh. I want my fish guy to live forever. You get fish from a whoesaler, you can’t get it right out of the water like that.
What about meat? Do you have a meat guy?
I have Jimmy the butcher. You should talk to him. This guy, he’s a good butcher. He’s an old time butcher. He has an old shop on Roosevelt Avenue. It’s a real old world butcher shop. Once they die, these things are gone forever…although some of them are coming back now. But the old butchers, years ago, they used to go and buy a whole cow. They’d buy the whole cow, send it to the slaughterhouse, get it to the shop and butcher it. They’d sell you all the different pieces, and that’s how they made their money.
They called it fresh meat, instead of the processed meat they have now that’s all done in a big warehouse where everything gets butchered and vacuum packed in plastic and sent all over the place. So Jimmy, he’s a fresh meat guy. He buys a live animal, he finds a good one and sends it to the slaughterhouse, and the slaughterhouse sends him the whole animal. He still works that way.
You know there are a few newer places starting to do it that way again…
There are a few places starting to do it again, which is a good thing. This guy did it to survive. He became a butcher because his father was a butcher and he ended up with the butcher shop. That’s it.
You’ve been here at Noodle Pudding almost twenty years. What’s next for you?
I’d like to do another restaurant. I want to do a restaurant that would be like just the way I grew up.
In this business, you have a lot of crazy people. A lot of crazy restaurant owners, chefs, and customers as well. Sometimes, you have people who come in, and they say, “Can I have this on the side, that over there, can you cook it like this?” Some nights you want to come out and say, “Why didn’t you stay home and cook it yourself? You want to come in and give me a recipe of how to make it? Then you should stay home and cook it because you’re wasting your money!”
For the next restaurant, there won’t be a menu. The menu won’t even exist. I’ll come out, ask you if there’s anything you like or don’t like, and I’ll use the best of the best of what I have to make you something amazing. You’ll have to trust me.
If you’re not going to have a menu and somebody is going to trust you to make them a great meal, you have to really deliver. I could mess it up, but I’ll concentrate. I don’t like to look bad. I don’t like to lose. So the food will be great, because it will be totally seasonal, and we’ll only have the best ingredients you can find that day.
I was thinking of seeing if somebody could do a letter of introduction to some big restaurant guy, because I would need the money to set it up. But I don’t want to even do it for the money. I just want to be able to conduct it. To be the maestro, like Toscanini, you know? I want to be there every day, just to conduct. You come in, you sit down, and you don’t know what you’re going to eat. You just eat what comes to the table. Forget the menu. Trust the chef.
I would like that. I think it’s a good moment to do it.
I’m trying the concept here now. I call it the ‘Trust Me’ menu. This week, I did fourteen ‘Trust Me’ menus. Fourteen people! It’s a good thing to order, because if you trust me, I’m not gonna let you down.
So Antonio, Noodle Pudding is known for being a place people come back to over and over again. At prime time, there’s always a line of people waiting for a table. Even your staff…people stay with you for years and years. What do you think is the secret?
In your life, or when you have a restaurant, it should not always be about just one thing. It shouldn’t just be about making good food, or just about making money. You can’t just say, “Let’s just make good food and abandon the ship.” It doesn’t work that way. It’s got to be a little bit of everything.
When people come here to eat, they come because they don’t want to go home and cook and clean up. And for me, it’s not just about making food and serving it to them. It’s almost like, you’re looking after them. You’re taking care of them. You understand what I mean?
You don’t do it consciously. You do it without thinking about it. And you do that with everyone. Not just the people who come here to eat, but the people who come here to work. And you do it all the time.
Look, it’s good to be a businessman, and it’s good not to be a good businessman. Sometimes it works in your favor not to be a good businessman. For me, everything is personal. Nothing is business, everything is personal. I take care of people. I’m a terrible business man.
For God’s sake, some of these guys who work here – you think I don’t fight with them? I fight with them, but when they came to work here I adopted them. They’re family. My excuse to people who complain about this guy or that guy, I say, “I’m stuck with him. God gave him to me like my own brother! What am I gonna do? Shoot him!?”
You know, growing up, I learned a lot from my Uncle Stanislao. He was the one that I looked up to the most, way back then. He was educated. He was always reading, learning things. He knew about things that later on really surprised me. He wrote very well. He helped all our neighbors write their wills, because he wrote so well. The guy was good.
We made a lot of wine, and he was good at making the wine. He made special red wines. We had a huge cellar dug underneath the house to store the wine. We had huge barrels, as big as this table. It was my job to go inside the barrels to clean them because I was the skinniest guy. To make a long story short, he’d make this special red wine, put them in special bottles, and he would label them by hand.
I remember, if the village doctor would come over, to make a house call if one of the kids was sick or something, he’d always take less money, or sometimes even take no money, because he knew we didn’t have much. He was always in a hurry to get back on his scooter to go to his next call, so he would always hurry away without taking any money.
It was always my job to walk to his house with a basket with some bread and some red wine in it, to thank him. And my Uncle Stanislao would always make sure I took the very best wine we had, and the very best bread. I’d ask him, “Uncle Stanislao, why do we always give him the best bottle of wine we have in the house? We don’t have many of those.”
He would say, “When we give, we give the best.” That’s it. And that stayed with me. When you give, you give the best. Always. That’s it. I took that with me. It’s traveled with me a long time, a long way. I always remember that.