Warm Up at Hearth

I’ve eaten a lot of gnocchi in my life. But whether those stubby potato dumplings were cloaked in five-hour ragu, sauced with bracingly lemony butter and sweet shrimp or crowned with black truffles, Marco Canora’s version blows all the others out of the boiling water.

His gnocchi are made from two ingredients: potatoes and flour. Their preternatural lightness comes from roasting and cutting the former in such a way that obviates the need for more than the bare minimum of the latter. Too much flour (or heaven forbid, egg) and the gnocchi would fall somewhere between ordinary and leaden. Too little and they’d break apart in boiling water instead of liquefying the moment they hit your tongue. They need nothing more than what they get: some butter, Parmesan, maybe a little sage.

“It’s been said a million times, but it’s such a truism: Simple food is not easy,” says Canora. “It looks easy, but try to do it, and try to do it consistently every day.”

This noble struggle is the story of Hearth, which has for six years turned out impeccable Italian-inspired food in a laid-back setting, before that kind of thing became a cliché. There are no look-at-me dishes on the menu, nothing that reflects a chef eager to show you how hard he works. His food is not about how much pork he can fit on a plate. In the Age of Change, Canora’s cuisine seems almost mild-mannered. But serving ribollita, the iconic Tuscan soup of beans, greens and bread, at a two-star restaurant (that should have nabbed three) takes more daring than pairing Brussels sprouts with kimchi.

“I have no real interest in reinventing the wheel or creating new flavor profiles,” Canora says. “Right now, I’m doing a venison dish with quince and cardamom, and that’s about as wild as I get.” Indeed, take a look through his just-published cookbook, Salt to Taste—you won’t find a hint of flashiness, but you will learn how to make an insanely good pasta e fagioli.

When I roll in with a bunch of friends, Hearth’s dining room is perfect—the exposed-brick walls, wood tables and warm glow evoke the conviviality that the restaurant’s name conjures—but if I’m alone or looking to have a tête-à-tête, I prefer a seat at the counter overlooking the kitchen. I’ll watch Canora and his crew assemble plates of charred quail with farro or his study in lamb (poached tenderloin, roasted loin, fried sausage, braised breast) as I take down the city’s best meatballs. They’re made with a hearty mixture of veal and ricotta, but have such a delicate texture that they’d feel refined even without the ricotta-filled ravioli that comes alongside. Or I’ll get a simple salad (maybe the one with sunchokes and beets), knock back a plate of those gnocchi, and then consider ordering another. I’ll order wine from Hearth co-creator Paul Grieco’s quirky list, a document replete with a wine wonk’s enthusiasm and devoid of pretense. I’d bet it’s the only list in the world that makes reference to the soccer celebrity Ronaldo, the art-rock patriarch Brian Eno and the political Hindenburg Sarah Palin. I’d wager it’s also one of the only lists that transforms with the seasons.

Grieco, a staunch disciple of the Danny Meyer brand of customer satisfaction, also oversees service. His front-of-the-house zeal is responsible for the restaurant’s impeccably informal but uncommonly deft waitering, which recently charmed one of the city’s toughest critics—not Sam Sifton or Adam Platt, but my father-in-law’s mom, who’s known for taking servers aside for a post-prandial, Jewish-grandmotherly berating. When she came to Hearth, however, to celebrate her granddaughter’s birthday and the meal was winding down, she just smiled as she swiped another bite of fried-to-order apple cider doughnuts.

Canora was raised on Tuscan food—whose appeal relies on deftly layering flavors to create an intangible quality Canora describes as “oh-my-god-that’s-fucking-delicious”—but his first experience cooking that food in a professional kitchen was at the legendary Cibreo, in Florence, Fabio Picchi’s paean to ribollita, tripe salad and the rest of the region’s simple, spectacular fare. After working for Tom Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern, where he went from making fish-dish garnishes to running the kitchen in a little more than a year, he took a break to work for Picchi. “He was a wild man who’d stomp around the dining room and berate customers,” Canora says. “But he was in the kitchen every day tasting everything—even after 25 years.”

After Gramercy, Canora helped open Craft, leading an all-star team that included Jonathan Benno, Akhtar Nawab and Damon Wise. When Craftsteak opened in Vegas, Canora had a decision to make. “I knew this was the beginning of empire building. I could still be in that company, a slave to no one kitchen, making a lot more money and working a lot less hours.” And despite opening the wine bar Terroir and his more overtly Italian spot Insieme, with which he and Grieco recently cut ties, Hearth is still his home. (He says he wanted to be his own boss; instead, I suspect he likes being a slave to just one kitchen.)

In a city where restaurants shed chefs and rebrand with regularity, Hearth is a constant. Canora is there every day. For the first three years, he didn’t trust anyone else to make the gnocchi—he admits to having Picchi’s tendency to micromanage rather than Colicchio’s skill at delegating. Today, his chef de cuisine Jordan Frosolone makes them. He’s worked with Canora for six years.

When I ask Paul Grieco, whom Canora met while they were both at Gramercy Tavern, how Hearth has evolved since it opened, all he could come up with was that the color of the felt that lines one wall recently changed from off-white to red. “We didn’t come into this as two kids right out of culinary school. I was 38, he was 35. We came together knowing what we wanted to achieve.”

“Everyone told me we should have a hook,” says Canora. “But I remember saying, ‘Our shtick is that we have no fucking shtick.'” Canora didn’t even want Hearth to be pegged as an Italian restaurant, a mistake he made when he opened a restaurant in Martha’s Vineyard and guests kept complaining about the lack of pasta and chicken Parm.

Instead, he and Grieco billed Hearth as “seasonal American with Italian influence.” After all, Canora says, the food isn’t 100 percent Italian—he’ll poach halibut and lobster in beurre fondue and serves a killer duck liver pâté—even though every week the kitchen burns through more than 10 quarts of soffrito (the finely chopped vegetables cooked in oil that give many Italian dishes their lovely depth of flavor, and that make their way into plenty of recipes in Salt to Taste). Like most chefs worth their knives, he insists on superior ingredients, often from small family farms, but never crows about it. Unless you ask, you wouldn’t know, for instance, that the pork he turns into head cheese or stuffs with figs—or the whole suckling pigs he crammed with pork sausage and roasted last summer—is heaven-sent from the pork-purveyor-to-the-stars Bev Eggelston. Canora’s menu evolves as the seasons change, but he’s not obsessive about it. A couple of dishes even stick around all year, he says: “A lot of people come in twice a month for the meatballs and the quail—I’m OK fulfilling that need.”

I come for the food that’s always there (those meatballs, for example) and for the stuff Canora dreams up during fava bean season or even when the farmers markets offer little more than cellared winter squash. But there’s more to making the restaurant, work than the dishes themselves: Grieco can tell you about all the menial tasks—him making sure the votive candles on each table were centered, Canora roasting the potatoes himself. But when diners arrive, he says, the work portion of his job ends. Then it’s “Come into my house, eat, drink. That’s fucking fun.”

Hearth is their baby, after all, and it has been their bet that ostentation and gimmicks are not the recipe for a successful restaurant. Lovingly obsessing over things is. “You know, it’s like that old investment bank motto,” says Canora. “‘We did it the old-fashioned way—we earned it.'”

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell