Sebastian’s Favorite Italian Tunes by Vinicio Copossela
We met with Sebastian Widmann on a warm February afternoon. The restaurant hadn’t opened yet and Sebastian was drilling holes in the wall for a wooden bench. He wore simple dark green linen trousers, a cotton grey t-shirt and as usual, was unshaven. You would never guess that Sebastian is in his late thirties or owns a restaurant: he is effortlessly handsome, tall, and looks like a scruffy actor or a European philosopher. His mother is British, his father German, but both of his parents were born in Argentina and have traveled the world. He wears a t-shirt or a thin shirt no matter the weather, and he has that slight tan of someone who spends more time biking around then scrambling through the New York subways. He likes to talk, he stops by tables to chat with customers, he smiles, he is calm and well spoken. Women will often stare at him but he seems oblivious to their glances and continues to coolly walk around the restaurant in his brown sneakers.
Many people stumble upon the restaurant industry, especially in New York City. In pursuit of a wallet to sustain an artistic lifestyle, artists, writers and actors alike, find themselves more times than not waiting tables, running food or even managing restaurants. They soon realize that the perks of a borderline normal occupation, and a semi-regular paycheck are grand. At Malaparte, a budding, Italian neighborhood restaurant in the heart of the west village, co-owner and general manager Sebastian Widmann stumbled upon the life of a restaurateur after a meandering path. As we listened to him tell his tale through the world of international relations, journalism, documentary film, philosophy and his peripheral forays into the restaurant world, we asked Sebastian, “At any point in your life did you imagine opening a restaurant in New York City?” To which he replied, “After a while you have to commit to something…the restaurant world made me unmotivated to find another job.” It is not so often that someone “settles” for the volatile, nocturnal life of running a restaurant, but for Sebastian, this just made sense.
The Restaurateur: Sebastian Widmann
Photo Credits: Kira Simon-Kennedy
Before owning Malaparte, Sebastian bounced around from one profession to another, after studying engineering and international relations at Tufts – he quickly switched majors – he briefly worked at the New York Times. He almost completed a one-year master’s program in Philosophy at Columbia. He worked as a bartender at a Mexican restaurant in Germany. He veered into documentary film. So where does his interest in food and cooking come from? Sebastian says that he always enjoyed cooking, but only really started to cook in Germany when he studied abroad. His kitchen back at Tufts was tiny. In Germany, a spacious and beautiful kitchen allowed him to experiment and take pleasure in the act of preparing food. His first job was at Café Noir in Soho in 1996. He then worked as a runner and expediter at Boulé Bakery. In 1999 he started to work at Malatesta. He stopped twice for graduate school and Berlin, but both times returned. Before Malaparte, Sebastian was living a rather bohemian life, filling the day with reading and piano playing.
Since the restaurant opened Sebastian works non-stop. He hasn’t taken a day off in four months. And yet, he still finds the time to play the piano and read, his two passions along with the restaurant. He told us, “Because I spend a lot of time alone the restaurant is a good tonic, it allows me to be in the thick of people.” Once a day Sebastian likes to throw himself in the vibrant and bustling interior of a restaurant, a place that is emotionally and physically demanding. Then, after a long day, he can return to his artistic and intellectual pursuits.
. . .And His Restaurant:
While the history of the man behind the restaurant, Sebastian, is an intriguing and particular one, the restaurant itself is of equal if not greater importance. Wanting to find a name that was congruous in some way to its sister restaurant, “Malatesta,” Sebastian named his restaurant after the German journalist Curzio Malaparte, a lavish and mysterious character described by Milan Kundera in Encounter. Along with Mr. Malaparte’s intrigue, Sebastian’s father made his living as a journalist, just like Curzio. Having grown up in India and Rome, and spent his adult life in Boston for college, Brooklyn, and Berlin for a change of pace, Sebastian wanted a place he and his neighbors could call home. After eating at Malaparte many times, we know that he has succeeded in that goal. Malaparte is a quintessential West Village restaurant — homely, inviting, with wide-open windows, wooden benches, a fourteen seat communal table, a semi-see through kitchen, and full of good-looking people. Most of the carpentry and design was done by Sebastian and his business partner, Emanuele Attala, including the upholstery on the green and white striped chairs and the installation of the benches. Due to a constant battle between Sebastian and his business partner, antique pieces come on and off the walls, but the overall ambiance remains the same. Just like the space itself, most of Malaparte’s décor was spotted on a cycle around the boroughs, and sometimes brought back on the back of Sebastian’s fixed gear bike. Sebastian admits that the design will remain a work in progress until his perfectionism and time catch up with one another.
Then there is the incredibly friendly and attentive service and the outstanding food. The spaghetti carbonara is made with guanciale, as it should be, and without cream, just egg yolks and Parmesan (recipe below.) It is creamy and rich without the cream, it has the meaty and salty flavor of the guanciale, and it is one of our favorite dishes on the menu. The pizzas are all white pizzas, and these too are not to be missed. One has shaved fresh fennel, giving the pizza a lovely crisp flavor that reminded us of Roberta’s Green and White summer seasonal pizza. The branzino whole fish is another terrific dish, light and cooked to perfection. The skin peels away in one go, revealing the delicate aromatic flesh beneath. We love the polenta appetizers, with the sausage or the mushrooms. The polenta is pan grilled and the mushrooms and sausage so full of flavor that this dish could be served as an entrée. The Lasagna Bolognese can turn a man used to his American mother’s run of the mill lasagna into a lasagna lover. Our staple dessert is the tiramisu, made with a delicious and surprising thin Oreo cookie crust on the bottom. We would even go out on a limb to say it is best Tiramisu in New York (recipe also below.) We always order the house red wine, to accompany our pasta, a Sangiovese, it does the trick, with notes of dark currents, and a hint of spice and easy on our wallets at 7 dollars. They also carry two microbrewed Italian beers, under the label Birra Menabrea, imported, just like many of their other ingredients, straight from Italy. The Amber Ale, is crisp, refreshing and washes down the pizza perfectly. We are never disappointed by the food, we know that our meal will be delicious and that the service will be exactly how it should be – friendly without being invasive. As a special plus, the servers are all young Italians. They may not have the training of a fine dining restaurant but they flash you a smile, listen carefully and help you with the menu if you have any questions. At Malapate, the best feeling is that we never have to worry. We are guests in Sebastian’s house, a house where anyone can make their home.
As the interior remains in flux, so does the menu, focusing more or less on pizzas, pastas, and fish. He also has his sights set on opening for breakfast and lunch everyday, in order to pursue his goal of embodying the neighborhood restaurant. Yet, in a life and restaurant “under construction” (in Sebastian’s own words) one thing that has always remained consistent is Sebastian’s guiding philosophy. In order to explain this philosophy, Sebastian outlined the synopsis of a recent Danish film called The Inheritance, which depicts a man whose life is ruined by the inheritance of his father’s steel company, a life that was quite wonderful prior to this event, when he owned a restaurant. When he is pulled away from his restaurant, where he could once raise his glass to the food and people around him, the main character realizes how much better the life of a restaurateur truly was. Sebastian wholeheartedly understands that feeling. When we asked him what gives him pleasure in his occupation, he said “when people leave with smiles on their faces.” In our minds, this is the original, pure goal of owning a restaurant: serving people excellent food they can’t make at home, in an environment where they feel at home. When finally agreeing to partner up and manage Malaparte, Sebastian set out to “create a decent atmosphere,” use “simple, good, Italian ingredients” and make “cucina povera (poor man’s food)” or genuine Italian food. And in our minds, Sebastian has done just that.
Soon the restaurant is about to open and it’s time for us to wrap up our conversation, drink a last sip of San Pellegrino, and admire the family meal the servers are eating. A deep bowl full of steaming pasta Bolognese and an array of colorful pizzas. Sebastian himself likes to eat the spaghetti carbonara for dinner almost every day. Our interview session must have been our seventh time to Malaparte, but then again we’ve lost count. The first time we came was after a long move-in, a day of carrying chairs and tables up the stairs of a fourth floor walkup in Chelsea. We had strolled along the Highline Park to reach the restaurant. It was a hot evening and we arrived at Malaparte exhausted, starving like two hungry wolves. The food was delicious, the wine good and plentiful. Since then, we keep going back.
————————————————————————————————————– Malaparte Recipes ————————————————————————————————————–
“The favorite dish of hungover Romans.” This dish has few ingredients, but is actually hard to get just right. The key is to not overcook the eggs and to throw in enough parmesan to absorb any excess egg yolk without throwing in so much as to render the spaghetti too dense to properly twirl on the end of a fork.
12 oz dry spaghetti (de Cecco)
7oz guanciale (a cut from the jowls of the hapless pig, more fatty than pancetta)
8 egg yolks (organic)
8 oz parmegiano reggiano (finely grated)
a splash of extra virgin olive oil
Place a large pot of salted water to boil. Slice the guanciale into half-inch long chunks. (Do not get rid of the fatty bits, as this what gives the dish its flavor.) Saute the guanciale in a large frying pan with the olive oil until much of the fat is rendered. About five minutes. Then set aside. When the pasta is cooked ‘al dente,’ toss it into the pan, making sure the strands are well covered by the rendered guanciale. Add the egg yolks and mix well with the spaghetti, allowing the heat of the spaghetti to cook them. Add the parmegiano sparingly, making sure to get the right consistancy. Should more liquid be required add some from the pot in which the pasta was boiled. Add salt to taste and garnish with a generous amount of coarsely ground pepper.
8oz of Mascarpone
6 egg yolks (we use organic, for what it’s is worth)
500ml of heavy cream
1 teaspoon of vanilla
4oz of suger
ladyfinger biscuits (savoiardi)
2 cups of espresso
oreo cookie crumble
120 grams unsalted butter
finely ground cooking chocolate
In a food processor blend the butter and the oreo cookie crumble – i.e. not the white interior – to a smooth paste. Spread the resulting paste along the bottom of a glass baking dish, with at least a 2 quart capacity. It should be barely a quarter of an inch thick. In a mixing bowl beat the egg yolks and the sugar until they are thick and pale. Fold in the mascarpone, the heavy cream and the vanilla and let stand. Pour the espresso into a shallow bowl. Dip the ladyfingers into the espresso one-by-one and place in the baking dish. Form a layer of tightly placed, expresso soaked ladyfingers. With a spatula spread half of the cream and egg mix evenly over the biscuits. Form a second layer of espresso-dipped ladyfingers and then cover it with an even spread of the remaining mixture. Finely grate the cooking chocolate over the entire dessert. Cover and let sit a refrigerator for six hours before serving.