TAKING a seat in the small pizzeria after a long day at work, he was looking forward to unwinding as well as finding some respite from the heady bustle of Brooklyn, New York. But what the Belgian-born, French-trained chef Mathieu Palombino had not expected on that fateful day was to find a calling that would change his life forever.
He watched in awe as the pizzaiolo (the Italian word for the man who makes the pizzas in a pizzeria) executed a series of deft moves, kneading, flipping and twirling the pizza dough up in the air like an interpretive art. The pizzaiolo then proceeded to ladle tomato sauce and smeared it evenly onto the flat dough before drizzling some olive oil and shredding some mozzarella and fresh basil leaves.
The pizza was then placed onto a metal tray and shovelled into the flaming wood-brick oven. Within minutes, the heavenly scent of baked dough, sauce and cheese wafted through the pizzeria.
The noise outside seemed to disappear the moment Palombino took a bite of his margherita pizza, complete with charred edges and black spots. He distinctly felt a tingling sensation as he chewed on the soft and airy crust. And at that moment, he fell deeply in love.
That was about 10 years ago and Palombino was 30 then. He left Belgium for the US when he was 20 and worked with high-end New York restaurants such as Bouley, Cello and BLT Fish where he ran the kitchen and earned a Michelin star. But the simplicity and authenticity of that iconic Italian food drove him into making a drastic decision. He decided to part ways with fine dining restaurants and open a pizzeria of his own.
In 2008, Palombino opened his first Neapolitan pizzeria called Motorino near his apartment in Williamsburg, a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, which had seen a major gentrification over the years. He was surprised just how well received his business was, noting with pleasure the long line of customers that snaked outside his pizzeria. Suffice to say, it was all somewhat overwhelming but, certainly, rewarding.
And he has not looked back since. The affable chef has now opened more chains of Motorino — two more in New York, Hong Kong and the Philippines, and one in Singapore. Last year, Resorts World Genting Malaysia bought the licence to open Motorino at its new attraction, SkyAvenue in Genting Highlands.
Today, I get the chance to savour what the New York Times food writers have dubbed as the best authentic Neopolitan pizza in New York, and catch up with the famed pizzaiolo himself, Palombino, who’s here in the country for a short visit.
The new and improved SkyAvenue mall is nothing but spectacular. I’m wowed by the huge atrium which has been the main attraction for visitors since it opened last year. The three-storey high LED walls, made up of small LED modules, form wraparound screens which immerse visitors in a panoramic sight-and-sound presentation. Alas, I have a schedule to follow and have no time to linger. It’s straight to Motorino, located on Level 1.
A waiter in a grey hoodie bearing the word Motorino across the chest greets me by the entrance. Smiling broadly, he ushers me to my seat. There aren’t many diners at this time and four tables have already been reserved for the media group.
Motorino Malaysia has been created in line with the original design ethic of the New York outlets with its clean white marble table tops and metal chairs. Covering 372 square metres, the pizzeria, with its black and white marble floors, white tiles and green doors, is certainly cosy. At both ends of the kitchen are two large wood-burning brick ovens with black tiles.
Within minutes, the appetisers arrive — meatballs and chicken wings. Although simply delightful, it’s the authentic Neapolitan pizza that I’m most looking forward to. The chef, it seems, is keen to highlight two of his special pizzas — the cherrystone clam (mozarella, oreganata butter and parsley) and amatriciana (tomato sauce, mozzarella, chicken sausage, scallion, pecorino and fresh cili api).
“Yes, I like the chilli! For almost 20 years I lived in Belgium, I have never had any spicy food. Once I tried it, I was addicted!” exclaims Palombino, who’s seated across me, looking dapper in his white chef uniform and dark-rimmed glasses. He goes on to add: “What I like about Neapolitan pizza is that it’s been like this forever. It’s simple and pure. There’s nothing fancy to be added.”
And the same goes for his pizzas at Motorino, where diners get to choose from nine types of pizza flavours. “We do pizza the way it’s done in its birthplace, Naples, in the 18th century. Even the ovens here are shipped from Naples. They’re made of bricks, as basic as how it was 2,000 years ago,” shares Palombino in his thick French accent.
On the origins of his passion for working with food, Palombino credits his two older brothers who’d always been in the food industry and today, own two restaurants in Belgium.
“They told me when I was younger that I should go to cooking school because I could have a bright future,” recalls the 40-year-old, adding that he went on to take their advice and enrolled for an internship at a cooking school when he was 16, before working in restaurants around Belgium.
His decision to move to the Land of Opportunity, the US, came when he was working in a restaurant in the Belgian capital, Brussels. As he got to know the kitchen crew members who hailed from various countries, it dawned on him how much he was missing out by not spreading his wings. With passion and determination, he decided to make that solo flight to the Big Apple.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
LIFT, FOLD, EAT
The simplest pizza, believes Palombino, can be luxurious, especially when the ingredients are of the best quality. He has his own trusted Italian suppliers for his tomato sauce, olive oil, cheese and even flour. “This is important for Motorino as we strive to maintain the quality of the pizza. All my restaurants have the same ingredients ordered from the same suppliers,” divulges Palombino, as he notes my delight having bitten into his cherrystone clam pizza.
Flavourful and with a hint of sweetness from the clams, it’s fast becoming my favourite. “Oh, you like that?” asks the chef, eyes dancing, before adding that his personal favourite is the margherita. “It’s the most basic pizza. Let me show you how it’s made,” he offers, before making his way to the kitchen to work his magic.
Motorino offers an open-kitchen concept with glass windows where people can watch the art of pizza-making from the outside.
Standing behind the glass panel that separates the kitchen area with the dining area, I couldn’t keep my eyes off Palombino as he shapes the pre-made dough. He’s like an artist with a brush in one hand and palette in the other as he ladles a spoonful of sauce, sprinkles some olive oil, and shreds some cheese and fresh basil leaves on the canvas that is the flat dough.
I can feel the heat from the oven which is burning to about 800-900 degree Celsius from where I’m standing. Within 60 to 90 seconds, a 12-inch margherita pizza is ready to be savoured. Using a pizza cutter, Palombino cuts the piping hot pizza carefully.
“Forget fork and knife, here’s how New Yorkers and Italians eat their pizza. It’s the best way,” he remarks before lifting a slice of the pizza, folding it into two and biting into it. “Mmmm, I love this,” he gushes.
Returning to where his attentive audience are now seated after having witnessed his “performance”, Palombino goes on to share that the pizzas his outlets make are exactly the same size as those in Italy. “This is stipulated in the law and I follow this rule,” says Palombino, with a smile.
What law? Pizza law? I’m bewildered.
Chuckling, Palombino continues: “Yes, there’s actually a law in Italy about how you should make your pizza for it to be defined as Neapolitan. For example, the dough must be made inside the pizzeria. You can’ make it somewhere else then bring it to your shop. No, no!”
The regulations, I learn, are designed to protect and promote the original, traditional Neapolitan pizza. The law includes a step-by-step guide to the perfect pizza and covers pizza shape, depth, toppings and even the way olive oil must be poured on top.
It also states that a true Neapolitan pizza must be cooked in a wood-fire oven and the final product must be soft, elastic and easy to fold in two. Check, check, and check for Motorino!
As we near the end of our lively session, Palombino concludes: “I’m in no rush to develop Motorino. I know it can be challenging to keep things simple because everyone wants something new every time. I’m not into crazy gimmicky stuff. I’ll lead my way — the traditional way.”
Where: (Next to Cafés Richard) Level 1, SkyAvenue, Resorts World Genting, Pahang
Contact: 03-6105 9182
Opening Hours: 11am-10pm (Mon to Thurs, Sun), 11am-midnight (Fri to Sat)