The Little Owl chef-owner Joey Campanaro, who’s also a partner in Market Table and the brand-new Soho seafood spot the Clam, is not the kind of flashy chef you’ll routinely catch on TV. Instead Campanaro, who was raised in an Italian-American family in Philadelphia, has focused his career on creating quality restaurants that draw loyal neighborhood regulars and diners from all over the city – if you don’t believe us, just try getting a prime-time reservation at the 28-seat Little Owl on short notice.
The Clam has been generating lots of positive buzz since it opened last month, and while it’s mainly the project of chef-partner Mike Price, it still seemed like a good time to check in with Campanaro. We chatted him up about that opening, the Little Owl’s enduring appeal, and a few things about him that may surprise you – let’s just say we don’t recommend challenging this guy to a karaoke-off.
Grandlife: Congrats on The Clam. How’s that going?
Joey Campanaro: It’s the smoothest restaurant opening I’ve ever been a part of.
GL: So why a seafood restaurant?
JC: Clams are pretty much every chef’s favorite ingredient. They’re one of the most sustainable ingredients on the planet, low in fat, high in flavor, and you don’t have to do a lot to them to make them taste good.
GL: What’s something on the menu you’re excited about?
JC: The clam fried rice. It has vegetables, snow peas, mung beans, water chestnuts, and carrots.
We make a flourless crepe – usually there’s egg in it. Then a mixture of soy sauce and chili paste, sesame oil. And braised pork belly. But I’m not the executive chef. Mike Price is the executive chef – he’s the final word on what happens. And that really helps our relationship out. I’m more of a sounding board.
GL: You guys have had Market Table together since 2007. What’s the secret to a successful working relationship that like, especially in the restaurant business?
JC: Mikey Price is basically my brother from another mother. At Symphony Cafe, during the architectural food movement, we worked for a chef named Neil Murphy. There was lots of work in terms of prep because the chef would always go 10 steps beyond. One of the things we learned was to help each other in a cutthroat environment. Mike and I always supported each other. If I needed help, he was there, and if he need help, I was there for him.
When you own a business, there are so many moving pieces. It would be very simple to say, “I’m a chef at three restaurants.” But we both take the opposite approach to that. When Mikey had to leave Market Table to open the Clam, we hired an executive chef, David Standridge. So now he gets to learn what we know: how to not let your ego run your business.
GL: I know you’re good friends with Barbuto chef Jonathan Waxman. Would you say he’s a mentor of yours?
JC: If you say mentor, that means you want to be like somebody. Jonathan actually encourages people to find their own voice. I feel lucky to have worked with such a force [at Bryant Park Grill, where Waxman hired Campanaro in the early 90s]; he allowed me to find my own voice. He asked questions like, “Do you love this?” And “If you don’t, why would you make people eat it?”
GL: Has it been a deliberate decision for you to focus on creating great neighborhood restaurants, rather than places that are big and glitzy?
JC: I’m much more of a realist. This is a difficult job. So the harder you make it, the smaller your reward. I build open kitchens – I don’t really like a closed kitchen. It’s kind of like being at a movie: You’re sitting at a movie theater, but you’re actually part of the film. When somebody eats at one of my restaurants, it’s all about them.
GL: Speaking of kitchens, the one at Little Owl is tiny. How do you make it work?
JC: By choosing great ingredients and allowing necessity to become the mother of invention. Some dishes are boiled, some are sauteed some go in the oven, but not all at once.
GL: Everybody loves your meatball sliders. What’s the secret to those?
JC: What sets that dish apart is the use of fennel. I grew up in Philadelphia and I learned lots of dishes from my grandmother – her name’s Rosie – and my mother, Patricia. A Sunday gravy has braciola, pork, meatballs, and Italian sausage. My grandmother really loved the flavor of fennel from Italian sausage, but one day she skipped the sausage and just added the fennel. The other thing is the use of water. I just make the meat and add water to it. What happens when water and protein mix together is it becomes like a soup dumpling: The protein and meat mix, and when it cools down it becomes gelatinous, and then when you reheat it becomes juicy.
GL: Why did you make it into a slider?
JC: I like the fact that you can eat something with your hands in an environment that’s very relaxed. There are not so many rules in my restaurants. Because what I want is for my guests to feel comfortable.
GL: What else should we order?
JC: Right now I’m making onion soup. It’s a gratin – a mixture of gruyere, fontina, and pecorino. Each cheese serves a specific purpose. For instance, when the gruyere cooks, it has an opportunity to get hard. When fontina cooks, it just melts. They just have certain levels of funk to them and they’re fatty. Then you mix it with pecorino, and it’s not a very fatty cheese but it’s salty and sharp. There’s a balance to using all three cheeses. People really like that.
GL: Are there dishes you love at other restaurants?
JC: At The Red Cat, I love the zucchini dish. It’s four very simple ingredients that are handled well – zucchini, olive oil, almonds, and pecorino. At Barbuto, the chicken. It’s the best chicken dish in the world. I like to to go to Del Posto for lunch. I think they’ve got some of the best food in New York.
There’s a couple of Japanese restaurants that I love. There’s Soto on Sixth Avenue. Then Sushi Nakazawa – probably the best sushi I’ve ever had. It’s unique from any other sushi rice I’ve ever had. I think it’s a different grain, and then how it’s handled – the texture of the rice when you put it into your mouth… you get to experience every grain of rice individually. Whereas you go to a lot of sushi restaurants, and you just get this glob of rice.
GL: Tell us something about yourself that not everybody knows.
JC: I’m a crooner–I like to sing karaoke at Karaoke Cave on 13th street. My song is “Mack the Knife.” Also, I dance at weddings: from freestyle to I’ll-let-you-lead.
GL: Do you know all the dance steps? Foxtrot, waltz…?
JC: No, but I’m really good at faking it. [Laughs]
– Jenny Miller