Breaking the Rules

Following the rules was never all that important to chef Michael Maroni. The idea that fine dining happens exclusively in restaurants with things like menus, nuanced background music and generous space between tables is bankable. But it never really worked for him. Maroni tried to play by those rules, but things always seemed to turn out better when he went with his gut. Even if that meant incensing the Navy.

Maroni, a Locust Valley native, knew as a kid he was going to be a cook. With a helping of influence from his dad he started working in restaurants in high school before graduating and joining the Navy. He scored well on his aptitude tests and after a stint running hotels on naval bases for fighter pilots he was sent to cook on a ship for the top brass. How did his initial hours go? “The first night I checked-in on the ship the head of the kitchen handed me recipe cards for that night’s dinner, meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I said, ‘Look, I don’t follow recipes,’ and made meatloaf the only way I knew how—the way my grandmother and my father made it.” Dinner went up to the captain, along with a healthy dose of garlic in the mashed potatoes. The kitchen wasn’t too pleased with his insubordination but the captain was and asked Maroni to be his chef.

It wouldn’t be the last time Maroni borrowed from his family’s culinary history. After leaving the Navy he opened Mirepoix (a mixture of celery, onions and carrots) in Glen Head in the mid 90s. He enjoyed almost immediate success, albeit with a dose of confusion that has become a Maroni trademark. “Everyone thought it was a French restaurant, but I just liked the name mirepoix, that’s all.” The setting was fine dining: White tablecloths, a well-planned, expansive menu of 8 to 10 appetizers and salads and an equal number of entrées that catered to a well-heeled crowd. “I hated it. I could not stand the restaurant,” Maroni said thinking back to his first few months behind the stove.

Like most chefs, Maroni doesn’t mind reworking a dish around a dietary restriction. But when every ticket reached him with stipulations—requests for the pumpkin ravioli, but with a plain tomato sauce instead of the intended whiskey brown butter sauce or for the swordfish to be prepared like the Dover sole—it caused issues. “Because I have a touch of ADD I could not help it,” he said with a laugh. “Now I’m not cooking, I’m reading and deciphering and decoding these orders and it goes back to the no recipe cards idea.”

He left Mirepoix to focus on high quality food in a more relaxed, to-go setting. Maroni Cuisine started with his grandmother’s meatball recipe, along with chicken noodle soup, broccoli rabe and paninis sold out of a former Northport pizzeria steps away from the harbor. The idea initially struggled to catch on until he supplemented the take-out business with more seating—acting like a traditional restaurant. But this time it was going to be high-end food on his terms: Rock ‘n’ roll playing in the dining room and memorabilia on the walls; a casual atmosphere with food that comes quickly, unencumbered by waiting while menus are reviewed. He had customers early on who walked out because they couldn’t comprehend a restaurant where the waiters don’t hand them a menu. “It may sound like I’m in control, and I guess I am. But I have freed you up of any decisions. And if you’re not a total control freak, you’re going to have a good time,” he said.

The trust he asks of customers manifests in a seemingly never-ending 25 course menu that runs from a caviar-topped homemade potato chip, to Italian zucchini parmesan, to sushi to Florida grouper. Maroni, whose large personality and warm nature is underlined by military precision, starts seating people at 6pm sharp. When things go to plan, the evening begins like this: “Hey guys, how you doing? Everybody all right? Everybody knows the drill? Anyone got any allergies? No? Everyone like to eat everything? You trust me? Good. Done. Let’s go.”

The simple agreement represents much more. It becomes a safety bar across the lap of a diner sitting in the front seat of a roller coaster. A nod of the head and the chain starts tick-tick-ticking up that first culinary hill for a ride that lasts more than an hour. “So at 6:03pm everyone is sitting, kind of excited, with a glass of wine or a beverage and then boom within two minutes or three, max, you’ve got beautiful, fresh caviar, soup, oysters, king crab and it just goes.” Good things happen when the rules and menus are left behind.

words: sal vaglica | photo: kenny janosick