From antiques to tapas


By Frank Angelino

Unlikely restaurateurs serving delicious fare

Donna Lennard of IL Buco restaurant in Noho gave birth to a son, Jaquin Cristobal born March 18th. A few days before, she was casually drinking a cup of jasmine green tea, while collegially interacting with her staff who were preparing for dinner. It was a setting she couldn’t have envisioned over a decade before.

Eleven years ago, Lennard a filmmaker chanced upon a vacant store front on a quiet Noho side street. She and partner Alberto Avalle decided to open a shop for their accumulation of antiques. When business didn’t develop they got their landlord’s permission to serve food. “With Alberto in the kitchen we opened a Spanish style tapas bar,” she says.

“We went shopping in the Greenmarket every day, got smoked fish and meats from the Catskills; we put together a beautiful list of boutique wines. We swore it would never be a restaurant,” she recalls.

By adhering to a philosophy of “doing what we loved,” serving “Unique meats, wines, Italian products, little jewels,” as Lennard calls them, they built a following and the unusual antique accented space, against the owners original intentions, inevitably became a restaurant. IL Buco, serves Mediterranean food specializing in the cooking of the region of Umbria, a verdant area in central Italy with accents from Spain.

In its search for artisan products, IL Buco formed a relationship with southern farmers to develop cured pork products from a rare breed of pig, the Ossabaw, found on a Georgia island where they have been left by the Spanish many years ago.

Last summer, IL Buco celebrated the pig by having an evening pork roast on its outdoor sidewalk. The porchetta sandwiches were excellent. “It was a four year project; I love Spanish ham, I’ve never had pig that tasted like that,” Lennard remarks. Flying Pigs Farm Heritage Pig has recently appeared on the menu as porchetta alla Romana.

“We built our own mill in Umbria for olive oil, so the saga continues, a friend of Alberto grows grapes for our own label of wine (Sagrantino di Montefalco),” Lennard says. The restaurant produces and sells for home consumption three different regional Italian olive oils, vinegars, and sea salts.

IL Buco’s daily menu, changes every day, and has so many interesting items that an Umbrian would feel right at home. Yet the menu has enough difference, the seven artisan cheeses from Italy, Spain and the United States, for example, to show the restaurant’s American roots.

Twelve chefs have cooked at IL Buco and what would be a liability for most places has somehow turned into a plus for IL Buco. Lennard says that, “They all shared the similar qualities with us.“ Many of the chefs have gone on to make a name for themselves. They stay in touch. One of them was on the phone with Lennard while she was drinking her tea.

The present chef, Ed Witt has been at IL Buco for over a year. “We’re making our own guanciale (pig jowl not imported into the US) for our spaghetti carbonara,” he says.

As comfortable as IL Buco’s dining room is, with its wide plank wood floors, old pressed tin ceiling, abundant floral displays and attractive walls decorated with displays of mezzalunas and chopping blocks, downstairs is even more special. “Early on an NYU professor leading a tour alerted us to the wine cellar where a visiting Edgar Allen Poe got his inspiration for his “Cask of Amontillado.”

The picturesque wine cellar with its brick arches and wrought iron is used for nightly dining and parties. It is not known if Poe ever returns, in spirit, to enjoy a comforting drink.