“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”
– Sophia Loren
Chef/partner of Bar Primi, Salvatore Lamboglia gives a very personal interview about growing up within the first generation of American-Italians in Brooklyn, New York. He further relates about meeting his business partner, celebrated chef Andrew Carmellini and their pasta-centric menu. They selected the word “primi,” which in Italian restaurants is the first dish of a small portion of pasta, and made it into a main course of real celebration in its simplicity. It synthesizes premium ingredients with detailed old-world Italian traditional cooking techniques.
Sylvia Tirakian talks with Chef Salvatore of Manhattan’s Bar Primi on his culinary philosophy and tattoos.
It is a hot August New York afternoon. I walk into Bar Primi, between Bowery and East 2nd Street. The design work of Taavo Somer gives you the instant feeling of comfort of an Italian trattoria.
Bar Primi is part of the NoHo Hospitality,, joining the famed, successful restaurants Locanda Verde, Little Park, Lafayette, and The Dutch.
As Chef Sal walks over to meet me in his perfectly white starched chef’s coat, he fixes one of the cloth napkins stacked in the corner and makes a comment to one of the employees about another detail.
NYC is a culinary mecca. In this center-stage kitchen, we can find the most talented chefs bringing a new spin to old recipes, using exotic ingredients and often combining recipes and bringing together the most unlikely ingredients to make a complex new art form through food.
Instead, Chef Sal stays on the spirit of simplicity which has been heavily influenced by his childhood memories of aromas, his neighborhood, and his final break into the tough world of being a successful chef.
I ask about his early years.
“I grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to parents that were both born in Naples, Italy. Everything was Italian influence in my neighborhood. Friends, food, delis, and my favorite was the festival of Santa Rosalia (Festa Di Santa Rosalia) taking place in the neighborhood that dates back many generations. The streets would be full of Italian food vendors, everyone knew everyone, and my favorite was eating fried zeppoles at the festival with my cousins and friends.
What is your favorite childhood aroma?
“Anything fried. I remember coming home from school and smelling fried squash flowers, fried mozzarella, and fried dough. And of course my mother’s slow-cooked tomato sauce.”
Besides having an Italian chef father who worked in Little Italy, what other influences did you have for your Italian cooking?
“First time I went to Naples, I was 22 and a young chef. My aunt took me out to one of her seven balconies and started yelling out to the entire neighborhood that her new chef nephew is here from NY and she needs the best fish, mozzarella, and many other things. I was so embarrassed, but looking back I wish I had videotaped it, as it was the most hilarious experience. “
As Chef Sal tells the story, he is completely transported to that time, smiling, remembering the neighborhood stores, foods, colors, and the banter of the neighbors who have been there for generations. We are both laughing, and he continues.
“The next thing I knew, the neighbors are at my aunt’s apartment, with cookies, gifts, taking pictures. Naples became a huge influence in its explosion of colors, street food aromas, architecture and the people with their passion for quality ingredients.”
I tell him that I believe Italian cooking is about premium ingredients, simplicity, and technique.
“Very true. It is also about patience. If I am rushing the dish, it never comes out the way I want in its perfection. Each step has to go through its proper process, like crushing tomatoes one at a time or even toasting the garlic, that extra couple of seconds help.”
To do this every single day with such patience, what does it take?
“It doesn’t take much when you love something that you do. This is all I want to do at this point in my life. I look forward to coming to my restaurant, seeing people enjoy our food. Also, being in the restaurant business, I learned from my experiences and wanted to be a positive chef with my kitchen staff. I am a firm believer that if the staff is happy, the food comes out with more love and taste.”
How did you meet Chef Carmellini and the philosophy of Bar Primi’s menu?
“I had seen Chef Carmellini prepare pasta on television, and I really wanted to work with him. I knew he was going to be at the James Beard Awards, so I borrowed my cousin’s Valentino suit, put on half a pound of hair gel and loads of cologne.”
Sal wears the expression of a man looking back on a personal youthful experience whose boldness still surprises him and entertains him regarding how those events were orchestrated. “As if I didn’t had enough going on, I got drunk and hung out at his table to get his attention, which was long enough to eat over 15 turkey meat balls to tell him that I can cook as good of a pasta as him. Chef Carmellini then says, ‘Come and see us.’”
To this day, Chef Sal is not sure if Chef Andrew was serious or was just thinking of a way to get rid of him.
In the kitchen, Chef Sal’s DNA is formed by pasta. Chef Andrew lived in Italy for a year, and together, they contribute to the wonder of Bar Primi, making hand-crafted traditional pasta and using seasonal produce in their dishes. Once again, Chef Sal gets excited about the produce that comes to him from Brooklyn Grange, a 2.5-acre organic urban roof top farm in the Brooklyn Navy Yard growing the best herbs, spicy thick lived arugula, and artichokes.
Chef Sal shares with us his different seasonal dishes with paired wines.
Outside the kitchen, Chef Sal seems to extend his love for food and other passions through body tattoos. He confesses that he has over 50 of them. A huge red octopus wraps around his leg, inspired when Sal saw his uncle in Naples catching one with a spear. Other tattoos reflect famous soccer champion Diego Maradona, a photo of his father, birthdays, names of restaurants, and many more.
I asked about his parents’ opinion of his tattoos.
“At first, they hated it, but now my mom would say, ‘Sal, show them the pizza pie and the octopus.’ I would say, ‘Okay Mom, take it easy.’”