Jack Petronella, co-owner of the Manhattanjack breakfast spot on Prytania and the upcoming American-Italian Uptown restaurant Altamura, is so excited to be bringing his food to New Orleans that the words pour from his lips nonstop.
He has good reason to be. Manhattanjack has been going gangbusters (a second location is slated to open on Old Metairie Road in early 2016) and he's returning to his Italian roots with Altamura, pouring his Culinary Institute of America (CIA) trained soul into the planning and execution on the family-friendly restaurant that'll make you think your Italian grandma was in the back cooking for you.
What was the inspiration to open Altamura?
This is my heritage. This is what I chef best. It's my style of cooking. I grew up in an Italian family - well, my mom was Irish, but she and my dad married when they were 18, so my father's mother took her under her wing and taught her everything about Italian cooking. Every year, we'd work together as a family to preserve two hundred jars of plum tomato puree. We'd have the whole garage laid out in newspaper and process twenty bushels of plum tomatoes every September. We kind of hated Labor Day weekend, because that's when we did it, but by June we were rationing out those last few jars. I never had a canned tomato sauce growing up.
After the CIA, I went to Italy a few times. All my trips were food based, and I'd hang out in these kitchens watching the chefs work. Everyone was so friendly and generous. When I moved to New Orleans, I saw this was something missing, and I thought, how can a city with so many Italians not have a basic American-Italian restaurant?
How did the restaurant concept come together?
We want to do a farm-to-table concept, you get to do that so much better in the South. The original goal was to open a few Manhattanjack stores first, but when I noticed the Italian food deficit, I turned my attention toward that first. We used our store [on Prytania] to get feedback if this was even something that people wanted here. I mean, there are a few great Italian places, but they are all region specific. I wanted to basically take every menu from every restaurant in northern Italy and put them together.
Anyway, people loved the idea a lot. We decided to stay in our neighborhood with the new place because we wanted to make sure we could give the community, all the people raving about the concept, a chance to experience it. It's been amazing to be able to use Manhattanjack as a catalyst to open a restaurant in a neighborhood that already loves us and trusts us. I mean, people don't even know if I can cook Italian, but they trust what we do here enough to take a leap of faith with us.
What can customers expect to see on the menu?
It's an extensive menu. There's gonna be 9-11 different pastas, 9-11 entrees, probably 8-9 apps. Soups, salads... the classics. We'll have a bolognese - you know, I drove two and a half miles once from Venice to Bologna to try bolognese. They don't call it bolognese, they call it a ragu, which I didn't know at the time. And no one would talk to me, so I just looked at all the plates coming out of the kitchen until I saw what I recognized as bolognese, and pointed to it and said, "I want that!" Man, they were totally laughing at me.
I'm going to prove that I can make the classics. Like a real vodka tomato sauce where you saute the vodka with black peppercorns before adding the tomato and cream. A filet de pomodora, with prosciutto and tomato, carbonara...we'll have veal and chicken piccata, marsala, parmesan, of course. We'll have an osso bucco, braised lamb dish. Also a capriccioso, which is a great dish for down here. It's a fried breast of chicken or veal with a tricolore salad on top of it.
We'll have fresh fish, clams, oysters, mussels, and red snapper too. It's going to be a plum tomato based restaurant.
What's the restaurant space like?
The space is an old Craftsman style house, which I love. It's got that peasant, homestyle aura to it. We're preserving the windows and doors and architectural elements, but going for a more modern interior design. There will be seating for 60, with about 10-11 at the bar.
We're not sure exactly when it's going to open, we're waiting on the new zoning regulations that are supposed to come down this fall. We'll hopefully be working at it in November and have the opportunity for soft opening for friends and family around the holidays. The place is already rebuilt to the extent that it can under the current zoning, which basically was mopping up the mess that was in there already. The rest of it will be mostly aesthetics.
My business partner, Coleman Jernigan, will be one of the executive chefs.
Where did the name Altamura come from?
That's the town in Italy my grandparents came from. It was way up on a hill with high walls to keep out intruders, overlooking the Adriatic in the Bari region.
Can people try your Italian offerings at Manhattanjack?
We have a meatball sub on the menu in the fall - that will come back after Labor Day - as well as a caprese salad and caprese grilled cheese. I was given that meatball recipe in Italy and I did not tweak it at all. When I tried it for the first time, I thought, "One day, I'm going to make money off this meatball."
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