Ammazzacaffé, an Italian-inspired restaurant in Eastern Williamsburg just west of Graham Avenue, marries consistent quality with affordability. For that, it’s been included lately among the batch of local restaurants to get on the Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list. An under-the-radar spot, a visit there last week confirmed that it deserves those Michelin-brand epaulettes, both for their food and their carefully curated list of amaro and wine.
A typically churlish Italian food purist might purse his lips at the idea of Kelly Hau, originally from Taiwan, and Gary Tackett, an Arkansan raised on casseroles and biscuits, partnering for a venture so steeped in the eating and drinking traditions of middle and southern Italy. The retort would likely be that they aren’t attempting a strictly “traditional” Italian menu, but instead taking what they’ve absorbed of that culture and doing what comes natural with it.
“I started cooking Italian food in the early 90s, at a place called Bella Italia, in Little Rock,” Tackett said in an interview. “I’m originally from Arkansas, but I’ve been in New York for almost 20 years, been cooking for 27. I’ve been in and out of Italian food most of that time, with a little Peruvian, New American, French.”
While it took some time to make a dent in New York’s cooking scene, Tackett eventually graduated to positions at places like Le Circe and Italian-oriented celebrity chef Michael White’s since-shuttered restaurant Convivio in Manhattan.
His years of experience layering complex flavors is apparent in the salt-baked and roasted sunchokes ($17), which come in a garlic chive-hazelnut pesto — said to derive from his wife’s Korean garlic chive-heavy culinary heritage — yoghurt and roasted hazelnuts. The whole swoon-worthy pile is then armor-plated with thin slices of raw sun choke, apple and salty pecorino cheese.
Tackett and Hau met five years ago working at a hotel restaurant in Chelsea that they declined to name. Hau, who ran the wine program there, arrived at a career in hospitality only after a circuitous road that began when she and her parents moved from Taiwan to Lugano, in the most Italian part of Switzerland (a half-hour drive and you’re over the border). There, she spent six years at a boarding school learning English and absorbing the Italian language and culture. At 18, she moved to New York to study photography and sell real estate, but it didn’t take.
“I hated it,” affirmed Hau. “So when I was 26, I applied to a school [Carlo Petrini’s University of Gastronomic Sciences] in Italy and did my Master’s in gastronomy. I was doing food-related stuff there but fell in love with wine and decided to focus on that; I started working for a producer in the Barolo region, Cantina Conterno.”
In addition to the aforementioned sun choke, there were binchotan-flavored spiedini (skewers, $6) of squid with a sauce made from its own ink emulsified with black garlic mostarda, and a Carolina BBQ-inspired pork belly ($6) that come with lightly pickled calabrian chiles and onions and chicharron for extra crunch. The squid erred too sweet for my taste, but I still yearn often for that pillowy, tender belly and its sour-tart accouterment.
“I came back to New York to work as a wine importer, but I had never worked in a restaurant and wanted to try it out. The only place that would hire me was a wine bar affiliated with the school I went to in Italy. And from there I started managing and doing wine lists at different Italian restaurants.”
An aspect of Italian culture Hau is fond of features heavily on Ammazzacaffé drink menu: the digestivo, a drink taken after a meal whose counterpart is the arguably more famous pre-meal aperativo. The most common Italian digestivo is the amaro, a vast sub-category of liqueur that encompasses an equally capacious nebula of flavors and olfactory sensations.
Generally high in alcohol and characterized by long, lingering botanical notes, amaro isn’t a recommendation likely to emanate from most oiled and coiffed sommeliers. However, the five amaros that a bartender suggested (Grinta, Antica Torino, Dilei, Reset, and Quaglia Fernet) jibed remarkably well with almost all the above-mentioned dishes.
They paired even better with Ammazzacaffé embarrassment of glutenous riches: garganelli smothered in a ragu of pork ($20) ; a complex spinach gemelli verde with maitakes and goat cheese ($20) and agnolotti in brown butter, filled with black truffle & almond pesto ($24), finished with a drizzle of aged balsamic and a cloud of grated pecorino.
Five years ago, these kinds of pasta dishes apparently raised a few eyebrows in a neighborhood filled with old school Italian-Americans and Puerto Ricans.
“We were a sore thumb at first,” said Tackett. “They wanted their dry box pasta that’s pre-cooked, a giant portion swimming in sauce and cheese with hormone’d chicken, and pay 12 bucks. So the first year was pretty hard.”
Kelly added, “We didn’t have any money for marketing so it’s all been word of mouth. We barely made it.”
Like every other restaurant in NYC, the last year and change was an endurance test. For months, Ammazzacaffé was just Hau and Tackett prepping, cooking and packing food for to-go orders, washing dishes, and delivering the merchandise to people’s doorsteps.
“We just wanted to be a neighborhood spot,” said Tackett. “I don’t want to say ‘under promise and over deliver,’ but we just wanted to be casual and approachable and have something with integrity and soul to it.”
Ammazzacaffé is located at 702 Grand Street. In addition to their food and beverage program, there’s also a spacious back patio, where live jazz is played (weather permitting) on Sunday nights. Dinner is served Wednesday – Sunday, 5 – 11, lunch Friday – Sunday starting at 12.
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Top photo credit: Matt Fink.
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