It's all in the eyes. And the balls.
If the Staten Island accent and amber peepers don't get you, Michael D'Andrea's meatballs certainly will. And then there's his unyielding appreciation for his mama. "My Mom, our last meal was my food," he'll tell you with a glint in his eye. Macaluso, by the way, is his mother's maiden name. "I wanted to do a tribute."
But when D'Andrea left New York and opened the restaurant 11 years ago on his own, it was without any help from his family. "Dad didn't want me to go through the hardship that he went through and what it took to get the business off the ground," he explained. "My mom was so worried about me. She was, like, can't you just go to Publix and bag groceries?"
His sister and brother still run the family business in Staten Island and his parents, who were from Naples and just outside Palmermo, have both passed.
D'Andrea keeps his family's recipes close to his chest--even his kitchen staff isn't permitted to assist him as he prepares the meatballs and marinara. And he makes everything from scratch, from breadcrumbs to sausage. (The best news is, he also sells most of it next door at Macaluso's & Co., the market/lunch spot that shares a wall with Macaluso's
.) But he'll be quick to tell you how much he depends on his crew to make the whole thing sing.
His restaurant feels like home, especially since the photos in the main room of his "loving, dysfunctional Italian family" watch over diners as they chow down on dishes selected from a chalkboard above the counter where D'Andrea said he likes to hide.
It's not that he doesn't like his customers. It's just that, in his house, he goes where he wants.
New Times: What is your culinary background?
Michael D'Andrea: I didn't go to culinary school. I received my formal training working with family in the restaurant business. My family has owned and operated a restaurant in Staten Island for over 40 years.
When and how did you know you wanted to become a chef? Who or what inspired you to cook?
I knew I was destined to follow my father's footsteps, but the moment I starting working in the kitchen I knew it was meant to be. Then when I got old enough to start trusting my intuition and feeling my confidence everything started to fall in place. My inspiration has changed in time just like everyone's priorities do. In the beginning I wanted to just survive and not let my mom and the people that believed in me down. Then it was to be the best, make the best.
What do you believe is the most important advice to impart to a new chef?
There are a lot of people out there who are not doing what they truly love. So I would say to a new, excited chef, follow your heart when it comes to the ingredients. Be consistent. Cook with only the best and I mean everything the best. Best intentions, best ingredients. And be the cleanest you can be.
Any types of cuisine you are curious about but haven't attempted?
Asian style cuisine has always fascinated me.
Who was the most impressive celebrity or dignitary you've ever cooked for/worked with, or the one person who makes you the most nervous?
First it was my mom. My mom was a very clean cook. After I was done cooking with her she would even re-wash the pots! There were times in the beginning when I was nervous working with people that weren't quite up to speed in their craft.
I'll never forget meeting Steve Martorano
. Steve, in my opinion, is like Madonna. I think that anybody who can continue to be in this game for 20 years and keep his style and stay on top of his concept... that's a big thing.
I've had the honor for cooking for presidents and celebrities. It's great to final meet these entertainers that I see in the movies and listen to their music and see them love my food. When I see how much they love my food, yeah, that whole aspect makes me a little nervous but it all goes away the moment they sit down to eat.
Describe your food in five words.
Consistent, healthy, traditional, love, honor
Describe yourself in a few words.
Passionate, kind, wild, loving, traditional.
Do you hang with any Miami chefs? Who and in what capacity?
I don't really hang with other chefs really. I have the honor in knowing some great restaurateurs and chefs and we are always helping each other but I don't want to mention anyone because it's all about me now, right? [laughs] But I wish we all did hang out more. Maybe one night a month we could take turns eating at each other's establishments and discussing how to handle these purveyors and other issues that affect our restaurants. Maybe even a private association; if we were together we could have more buying power with the purveyors and control the cost.
Any ingredient you don't like working with? Why?
Balsamic vinegar. Too strong for what I do.
What ingredient are you most passionate about?
I'm more thrilled about cooking with a $100 bottle of olive oil than I would be drinking a $250 bottle of wine.
Check in Monday for part two of our interview with Michael D'Andrea. We'll chat about his Cherry Nibs obsession, how he plans to take Starbucks down, and when he'd like to eat the world on a plate.