Bad Boys, Good Food
Lola mastermind Michael Symon and Cowboy (Food and Drink, that is) Mike Longo reminisce about the Warehouse District's early days
|Photography by Barney Taxel|
Fifteen years ago, Carl Quagliata saw something no one else did. Looking past the trashy neon signs and the ne’er-do-wells slinking into the adult bookstore on the southwest corner of West Sixth and St. Clair, Mr. Q. envisioned the future home of Cleveland’s hippest upscale restaurant.
In spring 1992, his foresight paid off. Piccolo Mondo quickly fueled a culinary revolution in Northeast Ohio. The place was filled beyond capacity almost every night as Clevelanders began to venture to downtown’s deserted Warehouse District (gasp!) in search of trendy food and cocktails that were previously found only in far-off lands such as Chicago and New York.
To steer his ship through these uncharted culinary waters, Quagliata hired Clevelanders Tom Quick, a promising young chef working in California, and Michael Symon and Mike Longo, recent Culinary Institute of America graduates.
Years later, after Piccolo had changed hands and names, I worked for two years at the helm of what was again West Sixth’s busiest location. By then, Symon and Longo had moved on to other things — Longo to Market Square Bistro and Firefly, Symon to Lola and TV appearances — but the spirit of the original place remained. I recently sat down to catch up and chat with them about old times.
WHEN WERE YOUR RESPECTIVE TOURS OF DUTY AT PICCOLO AND WHERE DID YOU GO NEXT?
ML: Pretty much identical. I was there from February 1991 until November 1991, when I went to Fuzee.
MS: But I was there before it opened, probably eight months or so. Afterward, I stayed with Carl and went to be the chef at Giovanni’s. Technically, I was supposed to be the corporate chef of both Piccolo and Giovanni’s, but I don’t think that really materialized. Never put a 22-year-old in charge of two restaurants.
WHAT WAS IN THAT SPACE BEFORE PICCOLO?
ML: It was a porn shop.
MS: Yeah, a dirty book store. Complete with 25-cent booths.
TWENTY-FIVE-CENT VIEWING BOOTHS OR SERVICE BOOTHS?
MS: Viewing. The service booths were 50 cents (laughs). We kept one in the basement until we opened. On a more serious note, in my opinion, Carl pretty much made the Warehouse District. He took a big risk. When we were going through the year build-out, Tim Bando [the general manager] and I would hit golf balls down the street. I mean there was nothing there. There was Bank Street Cafe, which I lived above, and the rest of the street was vacant buildings, and a few horrible men’s downtown clothing stores.
WHAT ABOUT THE HOOKERS AND COKE?
ML: We did have a large naked man walk in the front door one night. But I didn’t know about anything else. I’d tell you on the record if I did.
MS: On or off the record, my answer’s the same. I didn’t know about it. If it was there, I’m kind of pissed. I was still single then (laughs).
HOW DID PICCOLO CHANGE THE WAY CLEVELAND EATS?
MS: We had this young group of chefs from schools in California and New York with Tom, Mike and myself, and we didn’t know better. ... We didn’t even know we were taking the culinary risks we were taking. We were too naÃÃ¯ve to realize how aggressive we were being with the menu and doing the food that we did. It didn’t seem weird to us ... although I think our execution wasn’t always great, because we had such a huge learning curve. Basically, we had three guys in the kitchen running a beast of a restaurant and none of us had ever done anything like that before. I had been at Players, but it was 37 seats — and it was Mike’s first sous-chef job.
ML: I was the lowest guy on the totem pole. I don’t think I even made sous-chef. ... I was the kitchen manager.
MS: No, I think I called you the saucier.
ML: Oh, yeah, saucier. That meant I ran all of the cans up and down the stairs out of the basement.
MS: One of the main things that Piccolo did, also, was to make young chefs who’d gone away to school in New York or California comfortable with the idea of returning to Cleveland. It was a cool room and the food was new and exciting. Guys would walk in and it was always slammin’. All these young people were there eating food that wasn’t usually eaten in Cleveland and it gave younger chefs the belief that they could come back here and do new things.
ML: When I graduated and came to interview with Michael, that’s what I liked. I had offers to work in New York City at Aureole or I could have gone to Europe, but instead I sat there for two months waiting for this place to open. I had the feeling that something great was going to happen, that this was going to be thespot and the catalyst to launch my career, and it was.
MOVING BEYOND PICCOLO, IS THERE A COOKING CRAZE THAT YOU WISH HAD NEVER CAUGHT ON?
MS/ML, in unison: Fusion
ML: Wood-fired everything: pizza, etc. And that started at Piccolo.
MS: I think one of the biggest problems going on today, and I know you [MacLaren] and I have talked about this, is that a lot of young cooks just don’t have a great foundation.
ML: But they’re very artistic.
MS: Right, they’re artistic, but then they start throwing a bunch of things on a plate that don’t gel together. Their technique isn’t good. That is what makes me nervous with the next generation of cooks. When the three of us were going to school and starting to work, the Europeans and others taught fantastic technique. You understood that you couldn’t make a great sauce without a great stock.
ML: I think there’s a real lack of patience with cooking, too.
MS: It’s great that people are experimenting with new ingredients, but I think that sometimes customers accept creativity instead of flavor. So the food appears very nice and sounds very interesting, but it has no soul or substance to it.
WHAT ARE YOU TIRED OF SEEING CULINARILY?
ML: Cornflake-crusted fish.
MS: Yeah, there should be no more cereal-encrusted food. Oh, foam. ... I swear to God, if I never see foam again, I’d be very happy. And micro greens. I think that they’re almost done too.
BUT WHAT WILL WE DO FOR GARNISH THEN?
MS: Air. No, we’re already doing air. Ummm ... we’ll have micro-green foam or micro-green air.
FINALLY, ARE YOU A SCREAMER, A THROWER, BOTH OR NEITHER?
ML: Uh ...
MS: (Laughs at Longo) All of the above. I’m a reformed thrower. When I was at Caxton Cafe, one of my servers, a real smart-ass who I’d known since he was 13, was giving me lip in the middle of lunch. It was busy as hell and I kept telling him to get the food out and he kept lipping back. So, I throw a bread knife. I wasn’t aiming at him, but the kitchen in the Caxton was so small, it bounced off and almost hit him on the rebound. I remember we had this microphone at Piccolo so we could talk to the back kitchen where the apps were made. I turned it on and could hear this revolt going on in the back kitchen. I go back and Longo’s got a dishwasher’s head in a pan in the pot sink going, “I told you to dry these! Why didn’t you dry these pans?”
ML: Well, I went to grab a pot off of the rack and all this water falls on my head. The dishwashers are all over laughing in the corner.
MS: I asked Tim Bando what they were saying and he said. “I think they’re figuring out a way to kill Longo.”
ML: I think they were. The next day they wanted to know what kind of car I drove.
DO YOU SEE A NEW DINING REVOLUTION HAPPENING IN CLEVELAND?
MS: I’m seeing a lot of similarities in food across the city just like there were 15 years ago. We need someone, like we were at Piccolo, who doesn’t know any better, someone who doesn’t know they’re taking a risk.
Longo now runs two locations of Cowboy Food and Drink and Symon maintains three restaurants: Parea in NYC and Lola and Lolita in Cleveland. Find more of Longo, Symon and MacLaren’s conversation by clicking here
food & drink
12:00 AM EST
May 9, 2006