Nearly 90 years since his death in 1926, Italian-born chef Massimiliano “Maxx” Bartoli has honored the legendary illusionist by opening the new Houdini Kitchen Laboratory just blocks from where the legendary magician is buried in The Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale.
While a fan of the legend of Houdini, it is no mystery why the Bologna, Italy, native’s new restaurant has already caused such a buzz in the Ridgewood community, just one month after he opened his doors in early November.
“Everybody knows meat sauce, everybody knows lasagna, everybody knows tortellini, and everything that Bologna is famous for,” Bartoli explained of the stereotype that comes along with representing his hometown. “Italy is about the feeling of food, and it doesn’t matter if you’re from the north or the south, that is one thing that we all share.”
Bartoli, 44, has honed his craft in the city restaurant scene since he first arrived 18 years ago. From his first restaurant in the states nearly 22 years ago in Miami to his last job at the Miss Williamsburg Diner in Brooklyn, he has received increasingly higher praise from his fans.
Although his new restaurant is tucked away and surreptitiously located on the first floor of an old warehouse, formerly a brewery and early 1920s speakeasy, at the corner of Decatur Street and Wyckoff Avenue, diners have already discovered his craft.
“It has the position to offer today’s everyday people a product that is of a very good quality at a very reasonable price,” Bartoli explained of the new restaurant, just blocks from the Halsey L train stop. “This is authentic food at the base, but there is always some flair.”
After entering through the side access gate and walking up the stairs to the quiet wooden patio, which one day will offer exclusive outdoor seating, the giant steel swinging doors are opened into an old-world atmosphere fabricated with antique vases, wooden tables and furniture.
However, amidst the aurora of early 1900’s charm, the handcrafted pizza oven churning out crispy and precisely designed Neapolitan pizzas is one thing that is very new in the restaurant. Bartoli and his team built the stove from scratch.
“The oven has its own identity,” he said. “For two months we simply burned the oven to understand how the oven reacts with certain temperatures, and now that we have the oven understanding, there is the pizza understanding.”
Some of the pizzas on the menu include the Rocket, made with arugula, grape tomatoes and apple cider tarragon vinaigrette; the Habanera is prepared with carefully cooked cured spicy pork loin, mozzarella, tomato sauce and habanero peppers; as well as classic pizzas like the Margherita and Marinara.
“The classic Neapolitan pizza is a bit more gooey, ours is more crispy, it’s more defined, but this is a simple choice we made because we like it better,” he said. “It took us three months to put [the pizza menu] together.”
Bartoli plans on expanding the 47-seat restaurant, as well as the menu with a focus on pastas, fish, meats and the addition of a fully functioning bar once he receives the permits.
After watching the rapid expansion of development in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens over the past several years, Bartoli chose Ridgewood for the home of his new restaurant at a risk, but with a sure confidence in his foresight.
“The first time we opened Miss Williamsburg there was nobody,” he said. “The vision is of course taking the burden of being the first one to do this, but there is a risk factor and there is a gain factor that is bigger than the risk.”
Bartoli added that he also has plans to offer delivery services to the surrounding neighborhood in the near future.
“We’re going to start with Ridgewood first,” he said.
The area where Bartoli chose for his new restaurant also happens to be smack dab in the middle of the Southside of Myrtle Avenue (SOMA) Industrial Business Zone (IBZ), an area that Community Board 5 and others are trying to preserve for manufacturing.
Community Board 5 district manager Gary Giordano agreed with Bartoli that the area is expanding, however he hopes that more manufacturing businesses will open than bars and restaurants.
“I don’t want any sort of significant nightlife replacing potential manufacturers in that area south of Myrtle Avenue, and I hope that’s not a trend,” he said.
Myrtle Avenue Business Improvement District executive director Theodore Renz spoke to the same sentiments.
“We are still trying to preserve the area as manufacturing,” Renz said of the restaurant’s new locale. “There are other area commercial strips they could open up in, rather than an area designated for manufacturing.”
From a family of manufacturers in Italy, Bartoli said that he understands their concerns about the development of the area, but he noted that the trend is something that should be carefully built upon and utilized.
“This is not us, ‘colonizing’ the area, this is us preparing for the inevitable,” Bartoli explained. “The city is expanding and there is nothing anybody can do except find a new way of thinking.”