Antonio always gives me two pieces of bread and refills the olive oil dish as if we didn’t have entrees coming.
“Eres demasiado bueno con nosotros,” my dad can hardly contain his glee as he tears into his focaccia, still warm and buttery. Mi viejo and I have been coming to Nocciola, an Italian restaurant owned and operated by latinx in Spanish Harlem, for the amazing wine selection, unforgettable gnocchi, and corny dad-rock playlist whenever he comes around because, as he puts it, “this place is family.”
We don’t speak a lick of English to anybody for the duration of our meal, and before signing the check my dad turns to Antonio and makes him laugh with the exact same line he uses every time,”I tell everyone that the best Italian food in the world is made here by Mexicans and I don’t care what the f-ck they think.”
With the way that pizza, pasta, and wine bullied their way into U.S. cuisine mainstays, it is easy to forget that they are immigrant food. Southern Italians, fleeing poverty in their homeland, came to New York to seek new opportunities with scarcely the clothes on their back and the recipe for their nonna’s ragu. Italian staples were largely accepted into American food culture, and this presented as good a business opportunity as any. By the time NAFTA and political instability had Latin American immigrants crossing the border in droves, jobs as line cooks were waiting for them in Italian restaurants across the nation.
Angel Grande’s family is no different. Both his father and uncle came to New York from Puebla, Mexico and made a living cooking in various Italian joints throughout the city. Despite never having tried the cuisine before, they fell in love with the recipes. When Angel made the decision to come to the work in the States at age 15, his dad treated him to pasta meals on his days off.
“Mexican food and Italian food share a lot of ingredients,” says Grande. “I found that I really like the simple dishes. A really well-made spaghetti pomodoro, or with garlic sauce.”
So when Angel’s uncle, also named Angel, tapped his nephew to manage an up-and-coming Italian restaurant named Nocciola, the younger jumped at the opportunity. Angel Sr. and a partner, both Mexican immigrants trained as Italian cooks, started a food truck in 1995 named El Paso, and were able to do well enough to open up a physical location in East Harlem with nothing but their savings and some loans from friends.
El Paso did well enough that they were able to turn their attention back to their true passion: making the best Italian food NYC had ever put in its mouth. Years later, Angel says that his goals with Nocciola still haven’t changed since he started managing both Harlem locations.
“The quality of our food must remain constant, no matter whom is cooking on any given night,” says Angel. “No matter how long the lamb ragu takes to simmer or the gnocchi to get mixed or the oven to heat up; as long as the food tastes as good as it did yesterday, I am happy.”
Consistency is Angel’s mantra for Nocciola’s two Harlem locations. He works sixty hours a week and is liable to spend that time doing everything from managing, payroll, and hiring to being the first one in the kitchen in the morning turning on the pizza ovens. When Angel took over, he was given the decision of keeping the old staff from an older El Paso location or hiring new people. Angel kept as many of the returning staff as he could, valuing familiarity and work ethic over the fact that he would have to invest in training them in a new cuisine. This faith in his staff, and his process, has rewarded him with a favorable review on the Via Michelin guide, and even more customer raves on both Yelp and OpenTable.
I ask Angel about the lamb ragu that comes on my favorite Nocciola dish, velvety gnocchi with a sauce so thick that it reminds me of a Oaxacan mole, of the way my parents, Peruvian immigrants, used to take 12 hours to stew their bolognese sauce into the darkest flavor possible.
“Many restaurants make that dish,” he says. “But in our original vision for Nocciola we wanted to make food that took dedication,”
He then points at me. “The base in that ragu, it takes time, and love.”
He explains that the gnocchi are made with a French technique that makes them lighter and fluffier than the denser Italian recipe. The sauce itself does not have a set cooking time, it is simply done when it is done. This dish, and pretty much all of Nocciola’s menu can be summarized in this way; Italian food prepared with techniques from all over the world, and made with the work ethic that can only come from latinx who have come to know the ingredients that were handed to them, and only ever want to make them better.