At a certain point in a man’s life, usually in his mid- to late 30s, a time when his grandparents are dead or dying, when he may or may not have children of his own, and when his own wrinkles start to remind him of his father’s tired eyes, he begins ardently wishing to how to deal with that millstone, scaffold and lodestar we call family.
One can only cast family aside for so long until its weight accrues like unpaid interest and reaches for closure. One can only take it for granted, unexamined and floating like gossamer in the wind, so long before its tendrils clench. But at this age—which varies from man to man in accordance with the circumstances of his life—the weight of family becomes too much to deny and the import of family too much to shirk. And so, most of us enter therapy.
Some of us, however, open restaurants.
Such is the case with Harold Dieterle, whose new restaurant, The Marrow, opened just before Christmas in the West Village and draws explicitly from the cookbook of his childhood. Mr. Dieterle, 35, is Italian on his mother’s side, German on his father’s, and grew up in West Babylon, Long Island.
The menu at his intimate restaurant is, therefore, equally—and literally—divided between the Italianate cuisine of the Famiglia Chiarelli and the Germanic pantry of the Familie Dieterle. On the side of the menu that is maternal and Italian, there is hand-cut fettuccine, gnudi, cuttlefish with guanciale and riffs on classic Italian dishes. The other side, the paternal and northern European, is gamier, with a braised duck and pretzel dumpling soup, rabbit leg with schupfnudeln, a Bavarian rolled noodle and pan-fried duck schnitzel. (Mr. Dieterle is duck’s greatest interpreter in New York City. He is Gould to duck’s Bach.) On the menu, the sides are divided by a defoliated family tree that separates the two national cuisines like a culino-genealogical Switzerland.
Partition begs partisanship, and it is difficult not to pit the matrilineal against the patrimonial. But Mr. Dieterle is a peacemaker and child of divorce. He generously resists the impulse. He lightens the oft-heavy Germanic preparations, turning pickled herring, so often a salty gut bomb, into an epigram, a crisscross of tender fish accompanied by baby beets. And he ennobles his mother’s humble Palermitan roots through the shrewd addition of luxury to the erstwhile peasant cuisine. A sauce of sweet complexity made of golden raisins, pine nuts, rosemary and spicy cherry peppers, for instance, sits under three plump salt cod gnudi. (Dear Spotted Pig, relinquish your West Village gnocchi crown.) Wicked smart and savvy, Mr. Dieterle rides the brisket train, braising it, rolling it, anointing it with red sauce, enthroning it on polenta and calling it a “braciole.” His quotes, not mine.
This dish, in fact, embodies Mr. Dieterle’s peculiar genius. As a chef, he achieves perfect equipoise between active listener and self-conscious innovator. This was apparent at his first restaurant, Perilla, and to a greater degree at his second, Kin Shop. (See, the familial inclination was already beginning.) There Mr. Dieterle was respectful of traditional Thai cuisine yet assertive of his right to fux wit’ it.
At The Marrow, he increases the record of his struggle with agon to 3-0. Mr. Dieterle’s “vitello tonato,” usually a cold dish of veal with tuna sauce, which sounds gross but isn’t, is made with sautéed stone bass topped with a sweetbreads and tuna-belly sauce. Again, those are his quotes, not mine, and yet the dishes truly feel like a homage rather than a wink. It’s fancy Sunday-at-Nonna’s-house food, which uses those memories—that seemed like memories even at the time they were still unfolding—as a base for exploration, not a butt of jokes. Mr. Dieterle, following the trail blazed by Messrs. Carbone and Torrisi, has given Italian-American immigrant cuisine the American Dream.
Even at his most outré, Mr. Dieterle never falls victim to fancy; rather he contains his fancy, hammers it and works it like a blacksmith ’til it turns to something sharp and flavorful. His juniper-braised lamb neck is inventive but not foolish. And the namesake dish, The Bone Marrow, is as it sounds—a roasted length of cow femur, topped with a squiggle of Meyer lemon aioli and deep orange strips of sea urchin.
The plate belongs on the Famiglia Chiarelli side, and it is true, they do sell fresh sea urchin right past the Orto Botanico in Palermo, fresh from the Med. But I get the feeling this is all Harold himself.
When I had dinner at The Marrow, I ran into a blogroll of critics (Sietsema, Sytsma, Sutton, Sheraton and Kludt). These are all great people, a family unto themselves. But the faces that made me happiest to see, I didn’t recognize at all. Downstairs, at the entrance of the future private dining room, easily overlooked except by the gods of small things, is a fuzzy photograph taken around 1980. A young Harold Dieterle sits in front of a Long Island fireplace between his grandfathers. A row of cheap red stockings is pinned on the hearth. It’s Christmas. Harold Dieterle Sr., on his left, is a thickset bald man with bushy eyebrows, a cardigan and plaid pants. He’s grinning like crazy and looking at his grandson. On his other side is Carmelo Chiarelli, a handsome gray-haired guy with no jacket, gazing at his grandson with a quiet smile. Then there’s Harold, kneeling on bright red shag carpeting with a shit-eating grin, clearly stoked to be there.
His enthusiasm on that wayback Christmas Eve, between two dead men in a house now filled with strangers, stretches over 30 years, jumps from his genes and mutates into dinner. Mr. Dieterle has taken his family dinners and made his family dinner.
My grandfather, a gruff man who worked on the Manhattan Project, still grunts when I drive too fast and once gave me the finger for fighting with my sister. He writes poems, and stayed briefly in L.A., where he cheated on the KCRW radio trivia show. The Kokomo Kid won four times in a row. My own father I won’t speak to, and he’ll never meet my son. My mother has taken recently to long silent retreats and sitting in meditation on the opposite coast. But I love the lady, remote as she is. And I feel this all coming home to roost but can’t evade the swarm. Family is a latent disease.
I am not alone, I hope, in feeling impotent against this useless archive of feeling. But Mr. Dieterle has found an answer, and he suggests a path: he turns his love to food, and if it is less than love that he feels, he makes it sweet by stewing and softens it by braising. He bares his chest, cuts open his veins, breaks apart his bones and serves the tender marrow to all.