If you catch the scent of smoke wafting through Fort Greene, chances are that you're smelling the fiery flavors melding over open flames at Chef Norberto Piattoni's restaurant, Metta. Metta prides itself on its locally-driven ingredients, custom open-fire kitchen, and tranquil atmosphere that pays homage to its namesake, a Buddhist term for "loving-kindness". Chef Norberto and his team graciously invited us into this cozy neighborhood spot to learn more about the ethos behind Metta's space and cuisine, and Chef Norberto's own philosophies on food, supporting local communities, health, and happiness.
Tell us about your culinary roots.
Growing up in South America, I was exposed to many different flavors, farming techniques, and open-fire cooking throughout my childhood. After high school, I took a different direction to study chemical engineering for about six years but I finally decided that it wasn’t for me, and that my passion was to cook and make sure people eat well. I started cooking in random restaurants in Argentina and then moved onto a few restaurant concepts in L.A. and Kentucky, and finally ended up staging at Bar Tartine (now closed) in San Francisco. That experience opened my eyes to a whole new world of appreciation and techniques for local produce. I moved to New York two years ago, and started doing pop-ups here and there, and when I did one at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, I met Henry, who is now my partner in this business.
What was the culinary and aesthetic inspiration for Metta's menu and space?
The concept of cooking with fire in an open kitchen was a vision I’ve always had. When I met Henry, he told me that he’d been thinking about opening a new restaurant spot on this nice neighborhood corner, and we started to collaborate on the concept. I was hands-on with all the design details from the start, especially with customizing our open-fire kitchen. I wanted diners to see their food getting cooked over the flames. The artwork you see on the walls and our branding is by a friend of mine at Sublet Studio. All the artwork, ceramic plateware, lamps, woodwork – all of it is handmade by friends and people I've come to know. I believe in supporting the community, local artists, local farmers ... that’s the core ethos of our restaurant. After we pulled the culinary and design concepts together, the name “Metta” just kind of seemed like a natural fit.
What does “Metta” mean?
"Metta" is a Buddhist word that means “loving-kindness”, or benevolence. It’s part of the experience that we want our diners to have in the restaurant. We want this place to feel very welcoming, and we want to treat everyone with kindness. Of course, this place can get busy and loud on the weekends when it’s packed, but the rest of the time, the idea is to give the neighborhood a peaceful getaway.
How would you describe your cuisine?
The cuisine is a representation of all the culinary knowledge I’ve accumulated to date. We don’t have any specific directions or label ourselves with a single style of cuisine, but we try to stay as local and seasonal as possible. The dish might end up being South American, Italian, American, or Asian, but produce is the main driving force behind our menu. So we find what ingredients are in season or available in the area, and figure out what techniques to apply from there. We are very picky in the ingredients that we use, and we really about supporting local producers. We don’t use any olive oil or imported oils from other countries; our canola oil and sunflower oil come from Vermont. All those people who work in farming basically work 24/7, so we are very respectful for their hard work.
There are several house-preserved ingredients on your menu – what kind of preservation techniques do you use at Metta?
I learned a lot about preservation at Bar Tartine. They actually won the James Beard award for the best cookbook from a "Professional Point of View" a few years ago, and it teaches a variety of preservation techniques. For me, the idea of preserving produce makes especially a lot of sense in New York, with the strong contrast in seasons we experience here. If I restricted myself to only what was immediately available around here, I’d be cooking pasta and potato dishes all year. The advantage of techniques like pickling, fermentation, drying, and making pastes – I can build a pantry where I can access local produce during seasons that they might not otherwise be available fresh. Preservation also minimizes our waste – it’s impossible to be zero-waste, but we try to use as much of our produce as we can. So our pantry is filled with dried produce, dried yogurt… basically anything that could go bad, we try to find some way to preserve long-term.
Chef Norberto prepares the bluefish tonnato dish, using a spread of classic Italian tonnato (made of in-house blue fish confit folded into mayonnaise), raw radish, Peruvian potatoes and turnips poached in dashi broth, charred baby leeks, spring flowers, and marjoram oil to finish.
Is minimizing food waste the reason why you're also a fan of using less popular cuts of meat?
I believe that being utilizing the whole animal leads to better support for local farmers. Everyone tends to use the same cuts of meat in restaurants, so producers end up with a lot of leftovers of unwanted scraps, like lamb necks. There’s so much leftover lamb neck because no one wants it – yet it’s probably the most healthy and nutritious part of the lamb. As an animal that’s moving all the time, the lamb has strong muscles and a lot of fat accumulated in the neck – so it’s healthy, but still pretty tasty. In the last two months, we’ve probably cooked around 200 lamb necks – it's one of our bestsellers. We prepare the necks by searing them in the plancha (fire pit), braising them overnight, and then we pull the meat with our hands and crisp it over the grill using the fat from the neck.
Chef Norberto grills short ribs over the open fire in a classic South American fashion, and serves it with chimichurri sauce and house-made sourdough using a starter from San Francisco.
What was the process behind customizing your ceramic plateware?
I like everything to be handmade – I appreciate it a lot more than things being made by machine. I looked around upstate for someone to make the plateware for Metta and ended up meeting Aleah from Clay Pond Studios through a friend. All her pieces are made by hand. We worked together to customize size and shape of all our plates, and I knew I wanted to go with a neutral color palette to match the handmade tiles here at the restaurant. A really good friend of mine (who is also a chef) at Fefo Studio made all the coffee, tea and espresso cups.
What tips do you have to culivate our readers?
I strongly believe that our best medicine is in food, and that you are what you eat. I follow a very strict diet and am always eager to learn more about how to improve my health through food. I go to the market about 3-4 times a week, where I’ll chat with local farmers about new produce, vitamins, and proteins. I approach my diet with the same way we approach our menu here – I’ll discover some produce or ingredient that I want to incorporate into my diet, and then figure out which techniques I can apply to maximize their nutritional value. Nowadays, there are so many new food technologies and farming techniques, but my main goal is to learn about what kind of produce is out there and how they can benefit our health. I don’t eat things just because it’s in the “now”. A lot of modern chefs are into fancy produce from around the world – my main focus is just being aware of the produce and ingredients we’re surrounded with, and how we can improve our health and lifestyles from it. So I would say, care about what you eat, where it comes from, and why it’s beneficial to eat it.
Kitchen Snapshot – Norberto Piattoni
Go-to homemade meal: Pasta with grated cheese. Or ice cream.
Culinary quirk: Before I start my day in the kitchen, I like to ask each person on my staff how they are, to make sure they’re happy and have everything they need. I’m always concerned about making a happy environment, and I believe in treating people as the individual humans they are both in and out of the kitchen.