By Gary Walther
In a culinary world obsessed with new, newer, newest, Michele Mazza, the Executive Chef of the Il Mulino New York empire (16 so far, including the one at Acqualina), is the keeper of the flame.
His mission is to stay true to the original Il Mulino, founded by brothers Fernando and Gino Masci on West 3rd Street in Manhattan in 1981. Consistency and tradition: That’s the brief Il Mulino’s current owner, Jerry Katzoff, gave Mazza when he hired him in 2001, after buying out the Masci brothers. In effect, Mazza is Il Mulino’s strict recipe constructionist, and he sees the point: “A lot of people who visit Acqualina come from New York,” he says. They want the tradition.
That’s not to say that Acqualina’s Il Mulino is a replica of the two locations in New York or any of the others. Each Il Mulino has its own ambience—indeed the two in New York are vastly different in style. The décor at Il Mulino Acqualina—dark-wood breakfronts full of wine glasses, floor-to-ceiling windows, a marble-topped bar—reflects the menu’s inspiration: the south of Italy, specifically the Amalfi Coast and Sorrento (Mazza’s birthplace). (That look also has a tradition in some of the grand houses of Miami and Coral Gables going back to the ’20s and ’30s.)
Mazza also has to tweak the recipes to compensate for the location—like the lack of humidity in Las Vegas and the altitude of Aspen. “More east: less water and lower heat,” says Mazza. “More west: more water and higher heat.”
At Acqualina, that means adding a bit more semolina to the fresh pasta dough to counter the humidity. Acqualina’s chef is from Chile, but he’s worked with Mazza for 13 years, and the pizza-maker was trained by Franco, the pizzaiuolo in New York, who hails from Naples. It’s a case of tradition being passed down.
The fish dishes, according to Mazza, come closest to expressing the Il Mulino spirit: low-key verve and flavors in chords, not high notes. The main ingredient is simplicity. “Very simple,” says Mazza. “Fresh fish, good olive oil, tomatoes from the backyard, and a lot of love.”
When Mazza says it, that last line sounds right. Much like the Manhattan Il Mulino, 90% of the ingredients at Il Mulino Acqualina are imported from Italy; the soup stocks, made every morning, are vegetarian, and of course, there is fresh pasta every day, including tortellini, which is very labor-intensive. There are also gluten-free and vegetarian versions and options—and the chocolate cake is flourless.
Recent feedback from a guest perfectly encapsulates this simple approach of Mazza. “I still remember the lentil soup I had at the New York branch of Il Mulino when it opened,” he says. “Two sips in, I thought, ‘This really tastes like soup.’ It wasn’t the usual muscle-bound porridge of lentils. Rather, it was a gorgeous counterpoint of angel hair and lentils floating in a suave, light-bodied broth laced with puréed celery, onion, and tomato.” That’s the Il Mulino approach: traditional but unexpected, no matter what the menu item.
What’s more, the menu at Acqualina rolls with the seasons. When we spoke with Mazza in April, he was touting the soft-shell crab, the stuffed zucchini, and the organic chicken. “We are here to please our guests and therefore offer only the freshest ingredients available.”
And coming from a man who swears by the traditional family recipes of Il Mulino’s founders, that’s one thing you can be sure will never change.
To make a reservation at Il Mulino at Acqualina, click here.
About the Contributor
Gary Walther has been a travel journalist for 40 years. He has been editor-in-chief of Departures, Expedia Travels, Luxury SpaFinder, and Forbes Life magazines, and for the past five years a freelancer with a column on Forbes.com called The Hotel Detective. He has passport stamps from 61 countries and is a million-miler on American Airlines. He writes for the Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, and Departures Europe among other publications.