Even for someone who loves authenticity in food, Italian-born New York restaurateur Tony May is the first to tell you that what’s traditional is a changing target.
“Italian cuisine in restaurants was very different when I came to America in the 1960s,” the distinguished, gray-haired May claims. “Italian immigrants who moved here didn’t have the same fresh ingredients they had in Italy. They had to create new tastes based on the different ingredients they found.” The result was what might be called American cooking with Italian influences.
There was also the matter of many newcomers not always having the money to spend on pricey ingredients. “Their motto was good, plentiful and cheap, with lots of animal fats, especially pork fat,” says May.
Arguably, in the years since, May has done more to change Italian-based cuisine in New York restaurants than almost anyone else. First as general manager of the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center from 1968 to 1986, then as owner of Palio, opened in 1986, and next at San Domenico, which debuted in 1988 to rave reviews and three stars from The New York Times, Tony May’s restaurants redefined Italian-American cuisine. “Today, even American chefs are cooking with fresh Italian products,” he says proudly.
May branched out 1997 with two ventures in the World Trade Center, Gemelli and PastaBreak, which were operating when the September 11 attacks occurred. Then in 2008, May and his daughter, Marisa, closed San Domenico and opened SD 26, an updated, less-formal, but still-serious successor. Located on Madison Square Park in midtown Manhattan, it features a menu and ambience more in keeping with the new century.
“In the last 40 years, Italian cuisine in Italy has also changed,” May says. “We used to overcook meat and vegetables, so now we cook everything less. Dishes are more al dente. Fish is not over-cooked, as it has been in the past. And everyone today cooks with more vegetable oils than with animal fats.”
For SD 26, located at 19 East 26 Street, the May team wanted everything to reflect a young, modern and approachable lifestyle, from the name, to the trendy location, to the cuisine and the seating arrangements.
“Today’s consumers have changed. They want to participate, so the restaurant becomes part-theater. I asked myself, how do I keep them engaged?” May says.
To begin, SD 26, which has about 90 employees, went to an open kitchen concept to make diners a part of the action. “They can talk to the chef, who is almost in the dining room as he supervises things,” says May. At open prep stations, customers can see, for example, charcuterie being carved as it is ordered. “We want to make the customer a part of the restaurant,” insists May.
That concept extends to the SD 26 bar and beverage program, which is the under auspices of wine consultant Stefano Milioni. The wine list is constantly changing, but there are always 24 pours by the glass being served via an Enomatic wine dispenser in 1, 2 and 5-ounce pours. Customers have great views of Madison Square Park, and the idea of communality is encouraged by a shared table of appetizers prepared by the restaurant.
“We don't reinvent the wheel, we make, or provide, the best wheel out there,” says John Fanning, the SD 26 general manager. “Being one of the first restaurants to have its wine list available on an iPads, we give an amazing amount information on each wine, with tasting notes that customers can read and easily understand.”
While Tony May, as a consummate restaurateur, concentrates on the kitchen, daughter Marisa May is in charge of marketing and public relations, as well as hosting the front of the house. “Marisa is a people person, greeting them and talking with them at the table,” Tony May says. “That’s a skill you can’t teach.”
And she got an early start. “While I was studying at NYU, I spent summers working the front door at San Domenico,” Marisa says. Tony adds, laughing, “When she finished NYU, she just came to the restaurant and started working. She didn’t even ask!”
Matteo Bergamini, SD 26 executive chef and a native of northern Italy, began working for May as a sous chef at San Dominco at the young age of 23. After several years at the restaurant, he went home to Italy to work as a personal chef. Following stints in Egypt and South Africa, Bergamini returned to New York, where he got a job in the kitchen at Daniel. He came back to San Domenico to help executive chef Odette Fada open SD 26 in 2008, and assumed his current position a year later.
“I believe in continuity,” says May. “The more the staff works together, the more they understanding what is wanted. Matteo had worked with us at San Domenico, and my chef there was with us for 14 years. I’ve had the same maître d’ for 15 years.”
“I work very closely with Tony to determine new foods and recipes” Bergamini says. “We always search with importers and distributors for new items they carry. We continue to look for new ideas and new recipes, making innovations within the traditions of the taste and flavors of Italian cuisine."
The menu is updated almost completely twice a year, notes Bergamini. “We keep a combination of our signature dishes and those that reflect seasonal produce, which also gives us ideas for our daily specials. We still have a lot of Tony’s customers from the past 20 years, but about 40 percent of our diners at SD 26 are younger than those at San Domenico.” This is due in part to the larger bar seating area, where conversation and communality are encouraged and food can be served casually. Popular recent entrees include smoked linguini with clams ($24) and braised beef with Swiss chard ($18/$32, depending on portion size.)
“Our objective at SD 26 is to cook as Italians [in Italy] cook today,” adds Tony May. “The closer we can get to the cuisine of terroir-driven produce, the better the food. If we can’t get the right ingredients, we won’t make the dish.”
May strongly believes that nutritional values of people have changed, and has reflected this belief in the restaurant’s menu. For example, one lunch menu dish (Il Quadrifoglio) is named after the Italian symbol for health, and was developed with nutritionists at the University of Milan. Rather than featuring heavy meals that send people out the door in search of a nap, the SD 26 lunch offerings are geared to “energize” diners for an active afternoon.
Even at dinner, such entrees as lamb chops “Scottadito” ($27/$42) come with a balancing salad along with grilled red onions and marjoram. Cod is poached in olive oil ($20/$30) with balsamic-caramelized cipolline onions and bell-pepper foam. Dessert might be a bitter chocolate fondant with strawberry sauce and vanilla gelato ($11).
To emphasize the point, May says, “Our risottos are prepared only with olive oil – no butter or cream. When I told my colleagues 10 years ago I was going to do this, they laughed. But it’s a much lighter dish that is still flavorful.”
The SD 26 wine list is almost exclusively Italian, with an emphasis on affordability and diversity, both by the glass and by the bottle. The spirits and cocktails menu is long and more universal, although the emphasis (wherever possible) is on things Italian.
“You can see classic martinis and classic negronis in ‘up’ glasses glittering all over the dining room at SD26,” Fanning says. “As we are an Italian restaurant, I am pleased to say we do a good deal of business with amari e digestive. They are important products for us. Significantly, though, is how many Americans love these drinks. It helps make them honorary Italians for the dew hours they spend with us.”
“The idea of perceived value has become a very important element,” argues May. “We use the best ingredients, so our food is expensive. We want our customers leaving the restaurant feeling that they have received something more for their money.”
“I have no new plans,” Tony May declares simply when asked what the future is for the May empire. “I think I’m going to slow down. If anything new happens, it will have to come from Marisa. I will help my daughter.”
“There are very few father-daughter teams in the restaurant business,” says the smiling, vivacious Marisa, an only child. “I’m divorced, but I do want to have children. However, restaurant life is not easy on a woman. You can easily get burned out.”
Still, it is a way of life for her. “When I was born, my father was at the Rainbow Room, so restaurants became a natural environment for me. I started working summers when I was 16,” she notes, “but my pay was he would then send me to Italy for a month. I always thought I would go into the restaurant business.”
Now she is ready to take over, but gradually. “My father was the oldest of eight children in a poor family in Naples,” she notes. “I saw all the sacrifices he made. We will always have a restaurant, because that’s his life.”
But, yes, Marisa says, she does have new projects on the drawing board. “I can’t say what they are, not just yet.” She will say it could be food-related, but not necessarily new restaurants. Like many restaurants, SD 26 already has take-out and catering, so those options could figure into the equation. Marisa also admits she is intrigued with the booming restaurant business in Brooklyn, but a bigger hint may be elsewhere.
“I love sweets,” she says. “I love gelato. I want to reflect more of the kid in me in the next venture, a kid who spent her summers in Italy.”
For the moment, though, SD 26 is still father and daughter, with Tony May emphasizing structured change, the continuity of staff, and finding ways to meet the changing demands of a younger customer base.
“When it comes to my father and me running the restaurant,” says Marisa, “there are no egos involved.”
SD 26 Restaurant & Wine Bar
19 East 26th Street @ Madison Square Park
New York, NY 10010
sd26ny.com / email@example.com
Co-owners: Tony May and Marisa May