Chef Joe Isidori grew up in the Bronx, in a home where cooking was the family business. Both his grandmother and his father were professional chefs specializing in Italian-American cuisine – that new world variety of old world home cooking that, in the mid-twentieth century, took New York and then the country by storm and never let go.
Joe followed the path they had blazed into the kitchen, but he when it was his time to cook for a living, he realized that the last thing he wanted to do was cook the food he’d grown up with. In search of adventure, he went to culinary school and never looked back, chasing Michelin stars in the kitchens of some of the country’s best chefs, and immersing himself in cutting edge culinary philosophies and techniques.
But when his father passed away suddenly at work in his kitchen a couple of years ago, Joe felt a powerful pull to return to his roots. He opened Arthur on Smith in Carroll Gardens last spring to do just that – merging the dishes his grandmother and father made with his own more modern sensibilities
We stopped by to try Joe’s sea urchin crudo, a dish inspired by one of his grandmother’s favorite mid-afternoon snacks.
So Joe, what should we have today?
I just got some beautiful, fresh sea urchin in from Maine, so I think I’m going to make you my sea urchin crudo with salsa verde.
The whole concept with this place is about three generations of chefs. My grandmother was a professional chef in midtown for forty years. My father was a professional chef all over New York City and the Bronx for forty five years. Now I’m doing the same thing. What I do here is I take a lot of the dishes they made, the dishes I grew up with, and I recreate them in my own style, which is a little more modern.
Salsa verde was something we ate all the time in my house growing up. By the time I was born, my grandmother was retired. We lived in a three family house in the Bronx. My grandmother lived in the basement with the commercial kitchen. My aunt and cousin lived on the middle floor, and my father and mother and I lived on the top floor. There were no babysitters back then. The kids just went downstairs to grandma’s.
One thing she would always do, she’d put a loaf of sesame bread out on the table with some salsa verde, a plate of anchovies, lemon, stuff like that. Everyone would come downstairs, take a piece of bread, some salsa verde, some anchovies, maybe a squeeze of lemon, some chopped olives, some olive oil, and that was a mid-afternoon snack. I remember it really well. I remember my father sitting at my grandma’s table when I was a kid, just eating that. When I was thinking about dishes to do here, that was something that I kept coming back to. I wanted to do my own thing, in my own style, but with those flavors.
I kept thinking about it. I thought about doing it with anchovies, but I felt like that was too traditional, and I didn’t know if I could get away with serving a bowl of anchovies to people. I didn’t want to. I thought about doing it with oysters, but oysters are everywhere. It felt like a cop out. I tried doing it with a scallop crudo, and it was very, very good. But then one day, I was just flipping through a bunch of videos online and I came across a video of this old guy in Greece cracking open sea urchins on the beach and eating them right there with olive oil, sea salt, parsley and lemon, and I went, “Oh shit! That’s it! It’s perfect! I’m going to do it with sea urchin!” I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it.
I always think there are three ways to describe that ocean-like flavor. You have anchovy, the mackerel family – that powerful, concentrated, salty flavor like the depths of the ocean distilled. Boom. It’s right in your face. Then you have something like an oyster -much less intense, but still very much of the sea. Their flavor is kind of like what you taste when you get hit by a wave. Sea urchin is more delicate, more sophisticated. It’s more like what you experience when you’re walking down the beach on a misty day, and you inhale that salt air, that kind of briny mist. That’s the sort of flavor you get from sea urchin. It’s delicate, but it’s not delicate at the same time. It’s flavor is light, but it’s powerful, in a sophisticated kind of way. That’s what I love about it.
I use Maine sea urchin. Their shells are small and green, and they don’t really have a lot of yield. They’re more briny than the west coast Santa Barbara variety, which is really sweet and creamy. Some Japanese chefs prefer the Maine. Some prefer the Santa Barbara. It really depends on the application. For what we’re doing, the flavor of the Maine sea urchin is perfect, and it’s a local, regional product and a sustainable choice, so it has everything we’re looking for.
To start, we clean the sea urchin. It’s a little messy and they’re really spiny, so you want to hold them with a glove or a towel, and then you take a knife and just break into them. You open up a circular hole in the top, then you scoop out that beautiful yellow-gold flesh. You clean them in a little salt water, and that’s it for the sea urchin.
Next comes the salsa verde. It’s very simple. We start with some chopped fresh herbs – parsley, cilantro. I add some chopped capers, some lemon zest, a little chopped garlic – not a lot. Then some urfa pepper – it’s a kind of Turkish sun dried chili. A lot of times traditionally in a salsa verde you’d use a little dried chili flake. The urfa peppers adds a little more depth, more flavor. I like using them. Then some maldon sea salt, some black pepper, and we mix everything together in some really good olive oil. The one other thing I do is I add a touch of fish sauce – anchovy sauce. It gives it a little more punch, and it makes sense to have a touch of anchovy here, because the dish was inspired by my grandmother’s afternoon snack of salsa verde with anchovies and bread. It brings it home.
It’s a pretty simple presentation. What I do is I take some of the salsa verde and range it -just spread it out across the plate. Then I take some more fresh herbs to make a kind of herb salad. I take some fresh parsley, basil, and I rip it by hand and scatter it on top of the salsa verde across the plate, just to make a little salad. It needs some acidity, so I add a bunch of small pieces of fresh lime to the plate, with a little lime zest. And then I take the sea urchin and I season it with a little salt and some pepper, and add that to the plate.
Right when we serve the dish we give it a last drizzle of some extra virgin olive oil. That’s it. That’s all she wrote. It’s really simple. Just take some bread and dig in.
This dish surprises a lot of people. They don’t expect it to taste the way it does. They expect it to be a little fishy. It’s not. There’s a lot of balance in the dish. The herbaceous, savory, almost umami flavors of the salsa verde, the crunch of the fresh herbs, the burst of lime, the sea salt, and that final drizzle of olive oil all work together to really wrap everything together and really accentuate that light, sophisticated, ocean air flavor and the beautiful, creamy texture of the sea urchin.
With all those things combined, once you take a bite it’s one of those dishes you just don’t want to stop eating. You just keep going and going and going.
So Joe, how did you end up here, doing this?
Like I said, I’m from a family of three generations of chefs. In the sixties, Italian-American food was considered very posh. That’s not my term – I actually have a clipping from the New York Times in 1964 that describes my grandmother’s cooking as ‘posh,’ which is pretty funny. My father followed in her footsteps, cooking Italian-American food for a living. As he got older, in the 1980’s, places like Carmine’s were becoming very popular, so as a businessman he started to lean more in that direction, opening trattorias – neighborhood restaurants with large portions of Italian-American style food.
So I grew up with that. I was basically in my father’s kitchen by the time I was five years old. When I was about fourteen years old I started working in his kitchen every day after school. When I was seventeen, I was in the kitchen full time at my dad’s restaurant. All I knew was Italian-American food, and I felt like there was more out there. I wanted to find out what else was out there.
So when I was nineteen I applied to the Culinary Institute of America. My father was not happy about it. He wasn’t going to pay sixty grand for me to go to a school to learn to cook when he felt like he could teach me all that I needed to know for free, in his own kitchen. What he didn’t understand was that I didn’t want to cook Italian food. I wanted to cook other kinds of food. So I did it. I went to school. When I was home I would sneak into the city to stage at places like Daniel. I’d make up a story like, “Oh I’m going into Manhattan to meet some friends,” when really, I was going to work.
It was hard for him for a long time to understand it. It wasn’t until later, when I got to work with guys like Jean Georges and Rick Moonon, and eventually was a chef myself and he got to see how people were reacting to my food that he started to understand what I was doing.
So from the time I was nineteen years old, I never had cooked Italian food again. I just forgot about it completely when it came to cooking professionally. I was doing the whole fine dining thing, chasing Michelin stars and eventually I was lucky enough to earn one.
Then my dad passed away two years ago, in his kitchen. It was a shock, and it inspired me to kind of reconnect with that food he made and his grandmother made – that food I grew up eating and cooking – and to really bring it into what I do today. I wanted to reincarnate all those old world dishes using the more modern philosophies and approaches and techniques that I’ve been trained in over the course of my career. So that’s what we’re doing here – taking that old school Italian-American food that I grew up with and updating it a little bit – making it something of today. So, we’ll see what happens. So far so good. I’m happy, you know? It feels right.
Arthur on Smith is located at 267 Smith Street, between Sackett and Degraw, in Carroll Gardens.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.