First Look: Mathieu Palombino on the Return of Motorino Williamsburg

[Photographs: Nick Solares]

Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.

Mathieu Palombino sits at the bar of Motorino Williamsburg, his soon-to-open pizzeria in Brooklyn. He grasps a loaf of bread firmly in both hands and snaps it in two. Shards of crust litter the bar, which is covered in bread samples brought by a prospective vendor. He sticks his nose into the exposed crumb and inhales. "Sourdough!," he exclaims approvingly. "Right," replies Gianni, from Gian Piero Bakery in Queens, in what is clearly an American accent, before breaking into rapid-fire Italian. Palombino responds in the same language. They only revert to English when Palombino asks the baker if he's hungry; before waiting for a reply, he switches to Spanish and asks the kitchen to make a Margherita pizza. He probably knows some Cantonese as well, having recently opened a Motorino in Hong Kong.

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Recently, as in three months ago. Motorino Hong Kong is as close a facsimile of the US locations as possible. Palombino doesn't like to discuss the financial particulars of the deal except to say that he was approached by partners who he felt where committed to "doing it right." To Palombino, this meant staying true to the spirit of the original location. "I don't like huge pizzerias," he states. Motorino HK has only 45 seats and, of course, a proper oven.

The latter proved to be the greatest challenge—the steepness of the streets in Hong Kong made it impossible to ship and install a fully assembled oven, which he did in his New York pizzerias. Instead, his Stefano Ferrara had to be built in place. It may be a lot cheaper to ship ovens than oven builders, but there are some benefits, as well. "The Italians are there," Palombino says when asked about the availability of Italian produce in Hong Kong. "And there is no ban on sopressatta," he says excitedly about being able to source cured meats directly from Italy.

The wood used to fire the oven in Hong Kong comes from Estonia. "It's sustainable, from a fast growing forest and works beautifully," says Palombino. He especially likes that it leaves very little ash, making clean up easier.

When asked how Motorino is being received in Hong Kong, Palombino is happy to report that locals "appreciate and understand" what he's doing. He was initially worried that his style of pie might not have currency, since the only prominent pizzas in the city are Pizza Hut and the UK-based Pizza Express. But he needn't have feared—Motorino HK has proved extremely popular.

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Motorino Williamsburg marks a return to the borough for Palombino, after the original location was forced to shut down because the building that housed it was condemned. He's happy to be back; even before the other location closed he was looking to expand into the north side of Williamsburg. "I was already looking in this neighborhood," he says. "I would ride my motorcycle by here, and noticed that the space (on Broadway) stayed empty."

It turns out it had been a "social" club that was shut down for narcotics trafficking, which may explain why it sat empty for so long. Palombino fell in love with the place "right off the bat," drawn to the high ceiling that makes the room inviting and airy. After an extensive renovation, the restaurant is set to open this week.

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The Wiliiamsburg menu will feature the same items as Palombino's other locations. He'll also be tacking on a calzone and, in a move that will likely bring joy to the hearts of Motorino's original patrons, the Pugliese. The beloved pie of stracciatella, broccolini, sweet sausage, and Pecorino Romano hasn't been served since the original Brooklyn location closed. The pizzaiolo is also experimenting with a Fritattina: a Neapolitan specialty that features macaroni in a prosciutto- and provolone-laced béchamel sauce that's battered and deep fried.

As Gianni the baker eats his pizza at the bar, a delivery from Baldor, the specialty food distributor, shows up. Palombino starts rifling through the boxes, pulling out a handful of heirloom tomatoes for inspection. He approves of the colorful assortment and sets to work slicing and dicing them into to large disks. Doused with lashings of olive oil, sprinkled with fresh basil and parsley, a flurry of fresh pepper, and the simple salad is complete. "I love tomatoes!" he says excitedly as he admires the glistening, vibrant salad before him. You can try out the heirloom salad and the rest of the menu when Motorino opens this week.

UPDATE: Motorino Williamsburg is having its grand opening today, June 26, beginning at 6pm.

Motorino Williamsburg

139 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY (Map); (718) 599-8899;