Ten years might not seem like a long time in the context of a career, but in the constantly shifting landscape of New York City dining, it’s an eternity. Marco Canora and his parter, wine guru Paul Grieco, didn’t just make it to the decade mark this past fall at Hearth—they did it without ever compromising the integrity of Canora’s simple but noble vision: To cook soulful Tuscan food with local regional ingredients.
It’s no wonder that Hearth is constantly referenced as a source of inspiration by other chefs, or that it’s nominated for this year’s James Beard award for Outstanding Restaurant, which honors standard-bearers that have been around for at least ten years. In this game, consistency and endurance are rare qualities.
“It was incredibly satisfying to make it to the ten-year mark. This is a tough town and we had to be resilient to get through those rough years of 2008 and 2009,” says Canora. “It’s like we crossed the finish line of a marathon, but it’s not a finish line. We’re constantly changing to remain relevant. The last thing I want is for someone to come in and feel like this place is stagnant. It’s a lot easier to be status quo, but it’s my job to shake shit up all the time.”
It’s my job to shake shit up all the time.
This commitment to evolution instead of expansion has been critical to Canora’s success. He and Grieco have built the eccentric wine bar Terroir into a popular mini franchise, with locations in the East Village, Tribeca, Murray Hill, and Park Slope. But Canora never abandoned the kitchen at Hearth, and that devotion makes him something of an anomaly among many of his empire-building peers.
The roots of his cooking go back to a childhood in the Hudson Valley, where his Italian-born mother cooked dishes from back home with ingredients grown in her garden. “Without question I knew I wanted to cook, but I went to college for International Business and worked in the music industry because for a moment I thought I wanted to do something else. Then I realized there was no ‘something else,’” he says.
It wasn’t until his late 20s that Canora snagged a game-changing gig at Gramercy Tavern—eventually becoming sous chef—under the leadership of Tom Colicchio. “I had plenty of kitchen jobs before as a means to meet girls and drink booze,” he says, “but that is when I knew this was going to be my career.”
We are all better off for Canora’s late-bloomer epiphany. From his iconic gnocchi to Tuscan-style fried chicken, here are 10 of the dishes the no-nonsense chef just can’t get out of his head.
Mom’s zucchini frittata
I grew up with a garden, and one of my earliest memories of food is my mom picking the zucchini and basil from it for her frittata. She made it for dinner at least once a week with salad, and it embedded this notion of how food doesn’t need to be fancy to resonate on a soulful level. Eating something straight out of your garden while it’s still warm from the sun [is an experience that stuck with me]. (Photo: Nourish Network)
Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce
Spaghetti is another early childhood memory that was part of my mom and aunt’s dinner repertoire. They made a sauce with sun-ripened tomatoes straight from the plant. How much more simple can you get? But when you do it right, with the right ingredients, it’s transcendent. I serve that pasta now at Hearth for just three weeks in August. It’s kind of the only time. (Photo: Hearth)
Tuscan fried chicken
Not everything from my childhood came from the garden. I grew up eating Tuscan fried chicken with my mom and my aunt, pan-fried in extra virgin olive oil. The pieces are smaller than the Southern style. Every night at Hearth we have one order available for two—it’s not a dish that works in a restaurant kitchen and we always sell it before it gets busy. I make it the exact same way they did. (Photo courtesy Hearth)
Ribollita in Florence
Ribollita is one of those dishes every trattoria in Florence serves. While all versions have certain things in common—like bread, black cabbage, and beans—if you eat your way through the city, it’s astonishing to see just how many variations of a theme there can be. When I was in Florence, working under Fabio Picchi at Cibrèo, he made it very thick, working the stale bread into the soup and almost making porridge out of it. I didn’t think that would jive with New Yorkers, so I changed my recipe up a little bit, making it crunchy on top. I’m a sucker for texture. (Photo: culinarycolleen.com)
Chicken and ricotta meatballs at Cibrèo (Florence, Italy)
Fabio made his food at Cibrèo in the mornings and heated everything up on steam tables at night. He made these half-chicken and half-ricotta meatballs that would come out of the oven and just sit there, and they were unlike anything I had seen before. You think a meatball is a meatball is a meatball, but you eat something like this and it redefines your perception. Holy shit. Who knew that a meatball could be white and half made of cheese, without any beef or bread, and have such immense flavor? (Photo: travelsort.com)
Gnocchi at Craft (New York, NY)
As much as people want to think my gnocchi recipe came from my mother or my grandmother, it didn’t. When creating the menu at Craft I had my heart set on potato gnocchi. The recipe came through trial and error, but my god, it couldn’t be simpler: flour and potato and the sage-butter sauce. One of the highlights of my career is reading William Grimes’ review of Craft in the New York Times, in which he described the gnocchi as “eye-rolling pleasure bombs.” It was one of those ‘I win’ moments. They were on the menu at Craft from day one and they’ve been at Hearth for over 10 years. Every single day those gnocchi are made the same way. (Photo: leitesculinaria.com)
Stracciatella at Hearth
Stracciatella is the dish we had to start our Easter meal every year. Italians are all about making their broth with meat instead of bones, and this one is flavorful and unique because it has turkey, beef, and chicken. It’s clear because it isn’t made with gelatin, and it’s emblematic of that style of Italian cooking which is light and healthful. It’s like a full-flavored version of Chinese egg drop soup. (Photo: John Kernick via Denver Post)
Morel mushrooms poached in beurre fondue at Gramercy Tavern (New York, NY)
This is an ode to Tom Colicchio. My first real job as a cook was back in the late ’90s, at Gramercy Tavern. Up until then I hadn’t been exposed to the French style of cooking. Before service, one of the cooks would be making 24 pounds of beurre fondue. I had never seen this before, and was like, “What the fuck is all this melted butter?” Sometimes they would poach lobster in it, but one of the things I remember most was getting morels in the spring, dumping them in there, and watching all those holes absorb the butter. It was my introduction to heavy French cooking and it began my understanding of that side of the food world.
Braised rabbit with olives
For Melanie Dunea’s My Last Supper, I chose braised rabbit with olives as the meal I wanted to eat before I die. Food is all about memories and the thing about this dish is that it reminds me of my uncle. He had a radio and TV shop, and he lived behind it. As a kid I’d come over on Saturday nights and he would cook us this rabbit stew that would smell up the whole house. The rabbit browning, the red wine…I remember those moments so vividly and they created indelible memories that are stuck in my brain forever. I kind of do that dish now. Every fall and winter we serve it for two. (Photo: D’Artagnan)
Eggs poached in tomato at Cibrèo
Fabio was at Cibrèo every night, and one particular evening we had a really bad service and our asses were handed to us. The kitchen was a fucking disaster, with faces down to the floor. In Italy, we had family meal after service, and on this particular night Fabio took it upon himself to prepare it. As a young cook, watching him make eggs poached in tomato and then proudly serve it was a fucking amazing thing to witness. Watching what that did to bring back morale was a moment that revealed the healing power of food. It’s a memory I’ll take to the grave. (Photo: MarcoCanora.com)