First Meal Back: Chef Michele Rubini of L’Antica Pizzeria de Michele
The pizza maestro behind L’Antica discusses life during lockdown and the restaurants he misses most
In honor of all of the restaurants we dearly miss and can’t wait to get back to, we’re asking some of the country’s most decorated chefs to tell us about the meals that will be at the top of their list when Stay at Home orders finally lift. This is First Meal Back.
Michele Rubini came to pizza-making later in life. As a native of Ischia, Italy, he was no stranger to the pie, but he was a graphic designer by trade. Then he happened upon a wood-burning stove in his in-laws’ backyard.
“It was a weird situation because I was a graphic designer for so many years,” he tells InsideHook. “My wife’s parents have it and no one knew how to use it. So I got interested.”
He made pies for his family and friends, and lo and behold, one of those friends was the toque at L’Antica in Naples, who took Rubini under his wing. Soon after, Rubini realized, “You know what? It’s fun. I love it. And I say, OK, maybe I can do this as well.”
A little more than a year ago, he moved to L.A. to open L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele in Hollywood with his friend Francesco Zimone. It’s the first stateside edition of the famous Neapolitan eatery.
Even though he’s a recent transplant and has only very recently learned English, we chatted with him about being away from home during the Pandemic and where he can’t wait to eat once things open back up.
InsideHook: Where are you most looking forward to having a meal again?
Michele Rubini: I loved to go to Gjelina in Venice Beach. For me, it was for my wife and myself kind of a joyful day when we went there and relaxed, eating pizza. And you know, I’m missing that time.
Where are you looking to go for a drink once things get cranked back up?
We have a very good friend of ours who was working with us before the COVID-19, Bonnie. And she was also bartending at the Rocks of Ages in Hollywood, and she was always telling me, “You have to come here. It is a super fun situation. It’s very cool.” And honestly, I can wait to go there because I always say, oh yeah, Bonnie, I want to come here, I want to come, and I want to go there and have fun with you guys. But honestly I never had the chance to do it. I can’t wait to go there. It’s a dinner theater, where you can go for a cocktail. A sort of bar with a performance.
What have you been cooking and eating at home?
Baking focaccia and sourdough bread, too, which is something that I always wanted to do, but I never had the chance to. The first thing that we have done is we made the sourdough starter, which is a kind of a feeding situation, which is very interesting. And now we are making bread almost every day, which is a totally cool situation. And we are making so many different kinds of pasta. We’re Italian, so we like pasta so much. It’s kind of back to the roots, because for me when you home, when you’re in Italy, you’re having pasta with your family every day. So the COVID-19 makes everything so familiar again. So family style, all together, at least with our family.
What constitutes the perfect pizza, in your opinion?
I am a guy of very simple tastes. So for me, when you’re talking about pizza, you’re talking about Margherita, which is for me the best pizza that you can have. Because I mean, I have sort of a crush for the combination of tomato, mozzarella cheese and basil together. We were importing tomato and cheese and everything else from Italy before the COVID-19. Now we are buying local cheese here in California. And our pizza is pretty famous because of the quality of our ingredients. So when we talk about cheese, we are talking about pure fior di latte, which is not mozzarella. What makes the fior di latte perfect for the pizza is pure fior di latte cheese is very low in fat, and it’s also the way that they make the fior di latte cheese in Italy is very, very different because they milk the cow and they make the fior di latte within 15 hours. There is no frozen situation. There is no preservative. There is nothing, which makes everything so natural and healthy. Even for the tomato, the tomato that we’re using is the solar tomato, which is a mix of Italian tomatoes. They’re not just summer sun. They are the best tomato that you can find all over the country in Italy. So in the great selection of the tomatoes, we don’t put any salt in the tomato. We just mix the tomatoes and we serve them. So it’s very pure and natural. So tomato, no oil, no salt, no sugar. Tomato is just a tomato.
What’s been your favorite item from your pantry lately?
We are doing cornetti in our house with my wife once a week, because we can freeze them. I call them cornetti, which is Italian, but they’re basically croissants. So we are doing croissants, which is one of my favorite things back in Italy. Croissant is our breakfast. You wake up, you’re warming up the oven, you put whatever inside the croissant and your breakfast basically is done. Since we moved here, we also made banana bread, and other kinds of loaves. We love cornetti so much because it reminds us of Italy. Since the virus came and we didn’t have the opportunity to go out and shop outside. So this is something that we like to do at home, which is also kind of difficult, but trust me, worth it.
How do you think the restaurant industry will change after this?
I don’t know. I hope that everything is going back to normal, even if I don’t know. My opinion is different because probably my family is still in Italy. So I heard so much bad news from them and the solution is so unsure that it makes me think that probably we are not going back to normal very soon. I think we are going to be back to normal in eight months, nine months. I hope soon. But I don’t really think it is going to be so easy because of the social distance situation. Our occupancy is 150 people, and if we are going to be able to open again, we are going to probably open with 25 to 30% occupancy. Of course we are not going to make the same amount of money that we were making before the COVID. And of course the disease is something that is going to have an effect on the restaurant business. So honestly, I don’t really know what I expect from the reopening. My first concern is of course the people, to be safe. That’s my first concern. Because my family has seen this in Italy, they were calling me saying, “Let’s be safe. Let’s please wear a mask. It grows every day.” So since the beginning, even if it was unnecessary, I was wearing a mask and gloves from before day one … So when I imagine the restaurant opening up with people inside, the first concern of course is to be safe. We’re trying to figure out how to serve in the right way.
Are you optimistic about the future in L.A.?
Honestly, from the very beginning I felt something different about Los Angeles. I don’t know why. Probably because of the weather. Probably because of the positive attitude of the people around me. I felt never under pressure. I don’t know if this is something good or not. I was always wearing a mask and gloves before, but just because my family in Italy was so worried. But honestly I always had some sort of positive situation in Los Angeles. I always thought that Los Angeles was a better place to live and to stay, honestly. Even if Los Angeles wasn’t so affected like New York, I mean, even Los Angeles had a lot of deaths, which is constantly terrifying. I always felt that I was okay. I don’t know why. Probably because I was telling you about the positive attitudes of the people around me. Probably the California vibe. I don’t know. I don’t know why, but I always felt that it was not that crazy like other places.
Honestly, some people who are from Italy say, “Michele, why didn’t you come back here for this moment? Probably there the situation is going to be difficult, dangerous.” I always say, “Look guys, I feel OK. I feel safe. The people around me are positive. They always were talking in a positive way.” And that made me feel okay. I don’t know. To me, Los Angeles is sort of an oasis. Some days I was watching television and then I stopped because I know the craziness in New York city and I felt so bad. I say, you know what? I don’t want to see television anymore. I’m going to be careful. I’m going to try to do as best as I can to make people at the restaurant safe. I want to be safe. I want people around me safe as much as I can. But I never felt in danger.
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