Pet society

Mario LaPosta reflects on the fall of Babbo, the pet peeves of pizza and the rise of his new restaurant, da LaPosta

Tell me about the restaurant.

I have been working there for 3 and a half or 4 years. The goal was to deliver a pizzeria and a restaurant of my dreams, in the sense that I myself am a big foodie. I like to travel. I love to eat. So in every restaurant I go to, whether it’s Italy or here in the US, I’m always picking things up, whether it’s the food, the design, or just the concept – trying to create in my mind this great restaurant. What would a good pizzeria look like?

The restaurant’s goal is to showcase our pizza and authentic Italian cuisine – and to do so in New England as well, using local vendors and local farmers. We work with a farm called Chickering Chicks in New Hampshire, and we get all of their beef, and it’s just amazing. We work with a company in Utah called Central Milling. They make all of our proprietary pizza flour for us. We get Pennsylvania fermented cheese curd from a company called Caputo Brothers Creamery. According to them, it is the only dairy farm in the United States to have fermented cheese curds.

I think it’s important for what we do because, you know, especially with a Neapolitan-style, artisan-style wood-fired pizzeria, you see a lot of things imported from Italy. We certainly import products from Italy; there is no doubt. But our flour and our mozzarella and all that, and even our tomatoes, we stock up here. We do our best to source our supplies as close to home as possible. That was really the goal of the restaurant: to be local, sustainable and be part of the community.

Why Newton?

I originally had a location in the seaport, at Fort Point, but the pandemic put it on hold, and it just wasn’t something we were able to revive. We started looking in Metrowest. You know, we really wanted to open up the concept and start showing what we can do. A potential turnkey space in the ‘burbs’ was the best way to do it. … We found the old Cook space. The bones are great. It needed a little love, and the best thing about the location is that you are 10-15 minutes from anywhere. … And they already had a wood-fired pizza oven. It was the centerpiece of their dining room. So we put our pizza oven there and rebuilt this wonderful bar around it.

Bostonians have unique tastes when it comes to pizza. How would you describe your style, taste and texture?

It’s more related to the Neapolitan style pizza. I really learned how to make pizza in Italy, in Rome. I was working for a Neapolitan style pizzeria, then closer to Naples.

But, that said, I feel like the Neapolitan style pizza is really hard to replicate. When you are in Italy, which is like the culinary capital of the world, the ingredients are just amazing. So it is very difficult to get them as fresh as they are. That’s why I’m talking about getting supplies as close as possible to home. When I say Neapolitan pizza, we cook at 900 to 1000 degrees in 60 to 90 seconds. But how is our pizza different? I try to get a pizza that is a little more crispy but with the soft texture that I like in the Neapolitan style pizza, with the crispy outside. It’s really light and digestible. It’s super important.

Our pizzas are all made with natural sourdough. My starter is four years old. I did this by fermenting local Concord grapes in my pizza flour, then made a sourdough from there. It is the basis of all our pizzas; our pizza does not contain any yeast, other than the natural sourdough yeast. So technically this wouldn’t be considered a Neapolitan pizza because I don’t use double zero flour from Italy and peeled Italian tomatoes. … I say “artisanal Neapolitan-inspired pizza”.

Have you always wanted to be a chef?

I come from an Italian family. My father was born just outside Naples. My mother’s family came from Italy. So everything we did as a family was built around these big dinners every night of the week. My mother was always a great cook growing up; she always made amazing pizzas and amazing meatballs.

Honestly, since I was young I have always been obsessed with pizza. This is not a cliché or a story that I am telling. If I could eat pizza every day of the week, I would be fine with that. … I was inspired by my mother’s cooking and my father’s family visit to Italy. This is where the love affair with food, pizza and hospitality began. And then from there I worked at local pizza places growing up in Berlin, Connecticut, and so on in college.

In college, I was pursuing a diploma in hospitality. My brother-in-law offered me a job as a cook at his restaurant, Bricco, in West Hartford, Connecticut – not affiliated with the one in Boston. And, a few weeks later, I said to him, “Hey, I have nightmares about the cash machine and the pizza oven. “And he said to me:” You have the virus, kid; you are addicted.

He was right. I was hooked in the industry and loved every aspect of it. From there I was probably 22 at the time, I dove into restaurants and decided to save some money to go to Italy as soon as I graduated as an apprentice . I found a job in Rome. I worked about 50 hours a week, earning just over three dollars an hour. I moved there to really immerse myself in the food there and learn as much as possible.

What happened to Babbo? Have you been caught in the sights of what happened with Mario Batali’s empire? What was his ultimate downfall? Him? Something else?

First, I think we really had a great restaurant. I thought Babbo was an exceptional restaurant. … Our pizza was phenomenal; we had an amazing ice cream program that never seemed to get the slightest breeze.

I think the company in general made mistakes when entering the space. In my opinion, we haven’t done any research on the market. We did not know the Boston community. And you know, we walked in and just said, “We’re going to open up here.” Mario had a few rules as to how he thought diners should dine. The reality is that people like to go to great restaurants where they can sort of be guided in a certain direction until they maybe eat some unique food or drink that great wine. But, at the end of the day, especially in a relaxed pizzeria atmosphere, people want to eat what they want to eat. We just weren’t flexible at first.

I would call him and say, “Mario, people are going out because we won’t give them butter. And he’d say, “Okay, give them butter, but no marinara.” Then a month later I call Mario and I’m like, “Mario, we have to give people the marinara.” We annoy people. And he’d say, “Alright, alright, give them some marinara, but that’s it.”

We were a new restaurant; we were a great restaurant. So it took some time to get to a place of consistency. And then, really in the last couple of years, once the Mario case happened, sales plummeted immediately after Mario’s allegations were published. From there it was just an uphill battle. In my opinion, for the past 12 months at this restaurant, the company was having a legal battle with Mario, and they just weren’t interested in making the concept work. They weren’t interested in investing more time, effort or money in the location which is really unfortunate because there were a lot of amazing and talented people working there.

I never experienced what allegedly or actually happened with Mario. I didn’t work too directly with Mario and [partner] Joe [Bastianich]; I worked directly with one of their partners, Andy Nusser, who is an amazing person and one of my mentors. I think Babbo’s biggest problem was that it took us a little while to get to where we needed to be in terms of consistency and learning about the Boston market. Add in all the Mario stuff, which helped drive down sales, then you add 10,000 square feet and the waterfront, and yeah, that’s not good.

What’s your favorite restaurant when you’re not working?

I would honestly say that one of my favorite places in Boston is Shenannigans on West Broadway in Southie. It’s a local Irish pub, and the food is delicious. … It’s just a great little neighborhood place. I love.

I also like Loco in Southie. Their food is really delicious and they do a great job with the atmosphere.

Favorite snack?

I’ll go with Parmesan cheese on whole wheat crackers.

The pet peeves of pizza? Toppings that have absolutely no place on a pizza?

Pizza is one of those things where people can do whatever they want and paint their own image. I don’t want to be one of those guys who say “no pineapple!” I would say one of my pet peeves is pasta or fried calamari on pizza. Not a fan of it.

White or red pizza?

I have to be honest; I don’t like sauce on pizza. My favorite pizza is a quattro formaggi – four cheese, and there is no sauce on it.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Kara Baskin can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.

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