Some places open up with big names and big budgets, and end up getting all the press. Others take over previously jinxed locations, quietly, and blossom into their own sort of understated celebrity. Such is the case with Zagara, which took over a chronically temperamental spot on 7th Avenue just south of 23rd Street.
The location evolved from the mediocre Porter’s, to an even more mediocre High Point Bistro, then Earthen Oven, and finally, has landed happily as Zagara.
Giuseppe Mazzeo, who comes from Messina in Sicily, partnered with his brother to open up the restaurant named after the fragrantly idyllic orange groves of his homeland. He recalls warm days in the ‘zagara’ where the perfume of the orange blossoms transported him to a state of pure happiness. “You close your eyes, you feel good. You feel special. You feel something you don’t feel everywhere”, he said, which is precisely the sentiment he wanted to foster in his restaurant.
Mazzeo’s family still resides in Italy except for his brother, who also lives in New York. Giuseppe came here in 2002 and enrolled in an English school; his English is still heavily accented but it gives him a charming authenticity, especially in the restaurant.
From age 11 he knew cooking was his destiny, so when he graduated he immediately procured a post with renowned restaurateur Lidia Bastianich at the acclaimed Felidia, and then began working himself up the ranks of the kitchen, starting as “the salad guy” and progressing to executive chef at I Tre Merli Bistro and Baraonda. From there, his career vaulted, procuring positions at the original Serafina when it opened up on West Broadway, and the short-lived Gran Duca di Sicilia.
The creativity and independence, precisely the qualities that make him a successful chef , are both things that can clash working under a big corporate restaurant conglomerate. Consequently, he struck out on his own, with the backing of his brother and a few other deep pockets, and opened Zagara in October 2013.
The menu focuses on Southern Italian but touches on all the bountiful regions of Italy. Mazzeo wanted to be able to cook his favorite dishes, the ones he does best, without getting bogged down by circumscribed geography. His favorite dishes to cook are complex, multi-faceted pastas and risottos, like a decadent gnocchi with white truffle. “The more complicated, the more I enjoy.”
When it comes to his own favorite things to eat, a simple, classic steak tops the list, and he admits, with a guilty snicker, to adoring the American hamburger.
Mazzeo’s cooking morphs with the seasonal changes of the Greenmarket, so soon the heirloom tomatoes and zucchini blossoms will again find their way onto the menu. Zucchini features in a Tortino he makes, too, which is so popular that he cannot remove it from the menu despite the vegetable’s superiority in summertime. In terms of ingredients, he uses as many organics as possible, meats are grass-fed and poultry free-range.
That said, he has no intent on making the restaurant too elitist or conceptual. His goal has always been just a simple neighborhood trattoria serving sincere, thoughtful cuisine- a place for food he is proud of.