Their relationship dates back to Mr. Batali’s days at Po, his first restaurant (which he later sold), where Mr. Ladner became a regular because he “was young and poor and it was inexpensive and good,” the latter man said. Raised in Cambridge, Mass., he grew up working in pizza parlors, loving “the fraternal aspect of it, the camaraderie amongst the staff. I didn’t even know that something beyond the pedestrian restaurant existed.” He moved to New York in 1994 after graduating from Johnson & Wales culinary school in Providence and working briefly for the well-known chef Todd English in Charlestown, Mass. After a spate of “filling in” various places for cash under the table, he eventually helped open three restaurants for then-up-and-coming chef Scott Bryan, who was just named chef at Lever House. Finally, Mr. Ladner landed a coveted job at Jean Georges through his friend Wylie Dufresne, now of WD-50.
“Everything was French. Even the non-formal, non-French restaurants were French and formal,” Mr. Ladner said. But it was informal food that most interested him. He pursued a job with Mr. Batali, whom he saw often around the Village at the time and had long admired on Molto Mario. “I had a lot of background with the Italian families I’d worked for,” he said, “and I’d sort of developed this sensibility towards cooking that way”—casual and rustic.
Mr. Batali hired him as sous chef at Babbo, which the James Beard Foundation named the “Best New Restaurant of 1998.” When Lupa and Otto opened, Mr. Ladner was a partner and key menu strategist. He was chef at Lupa for five years.
Del Posto was initially “intended to be more of like a Carmine’s, or like a … like a Carmine’s, actually,” Mr. Ladner said. But the booming economy made his bosses ambitious. Mr. Ladner was the only man Mr. Batali and Mr. Bastianich considered for the job of head chef. (He’s also a partner.) “I think it was because I understood them and their vision and they knew they could manage me and that I wouldn’t, you know, rob the books,” said the younger man. “It was way beyond anything that I should’ve been getting involved with.”
If Mr. Ladner is forthcoming on any subject, it is the ways in which he is unexceptional. He referred to his assistant as “the brains behind the operation,” and at one point stated, “I’m just not that dynamic a person.
“I just seem to have this ability to kind of keep it together, you know?” he said. “Facilitate other people and help them to grow, evolve. That’s really what I’ve become, this facilitator. It’s kind of strange.” Most nights he mans the pasta station, he said, where he can cook for VIP’s and see the largest volume of plates before they leave the kitchen.
Lettin’ Loose at Per Se
Mr. Batali, disagreed, naturally. “I could teach his managerial role to just about anyone who came down the pike,” he said. “He understands his farmers, his fish purveyors; he is able to sort of bring it all together in a unique and delicious way that may not be found on any table in Italy but would seem very Italian even to Italians.”
“He is, I would say, one of the pre-eminent scholars of Italian cooking,” added his friend Mr. Dufresne. “When Mark cooks you a bowl of pasta it’s quite an experience… He’s intentionally stayed out of the limelight, but it would be nice to see the guy get his due.”
Mr. Ladner has taken on Mr. Batali’s original quest for four stars, but he’s in no rush. “I think we deserved the [three-star Times] review that we got,” he said. The two Michelin stars, on the other hand, awarded in both 2006 and 2007, were a surprise he wasn’t sure they deserved. “I feel like if we don’t get [four stars in The Times] at some point, even if it’s not this year or next, I think it would be in a way a failure,” he said.
To that end, the menu and particularly the décor are undergoing changes. “I don’t dislike it, but I’m not a huge fan,” said Mr. Ladner of the dining room. “I wish there were more feminine elements to balance the clubby, macho thing. We’re working on that. We’re trying to make it look like it’s been here longer.” They have also tried to make the sweet and savory menus more complementary and to keep the banquet fare, which constitute a large part of Del Posto’s business, on the same high level as the a la carte items, which currently include venison, Dover sole and rib-eye. “It has been arduous,” he said of the process.
It is not lost on Mr. Ladner that he came to New York to cook casual food at the height of the fine-dining era and now finds himself cooking the Frenchest, er, fanciest Italian food in the city as a casual-dining revolution swirls around him. “I thought that I would find my niche in the sort of $25-and-under restaurants,” he said. “Ultimately, in my soul, that’s the kind of food that I like.” But intellectually, he has found “more finished food … contrived, composed food,” which he is now perfecting for a new, more demanding type of Batali clientele.