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Making Italian Food Modern: Marco Fregonese of Novitá

Pasta master Marco Fregonese, chef at perennial New York favorite Novitá, reveals how his culinary journey from a small village in North Piedmont, Italy, has inspired his success

Unlike many Italian chefs, Marco Fregonese didn’t get his love of food from his mother: it was actually his aunt who showed a young Fregonese what good eating was all about. Later he would hone his skills in Gualtiero Marchesi’s three Michelin-starred kitchen in Milan, before moving to the United States. After serving as executive chef at New York’s Mezzaluna, he opened Novitá (meaning innovation and originality) in 1994, and continues to wow diners with his “modern regional Italian” food.

Your career spans 30 years, can you give us a whistle-stop tour?
My first professional position was in Gualtiero Marchesi’s three Michelin-starred kitchen in Milan, where I trained as a cook for two years. I then left Italy for a sous chef post and the opening of DDL Food Show in Beverly Hills CA, a restaurant and market showcasing contemporary Italian cooking sponsored by the Italian government and Dino De Laurentis. This led to an executive chef position in New York City’s Upper East Side at Mezzaluna, the first restaurant with a modern Italian menu in the USA. I was then offered a partnership at its new sister restaurant, Mezzogiorno, where I was the executive chef/partner for six years. Both of these restaurants were stupendously successful. After that I opened Novitá, where I have been chef/owner for 24 years.

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Cacio e pepe spaghettini Novitá
Cacio e pepe spaghettini infused with pepper and lemon, one of the dishes on the fall menu at Novitá.

Where did you grow up, and what part did food play in your upbringing?
I grew up in a small village in North Piedmont, Italy, and every Sunday my father would prepare a grand family lunch for our entire extended family. My mother had no passion for cooking and midweek meals were uninspired. I spent summers with my aunt in Liguria, who was deeply passionate about food and cooking. She would spend the entire day shopping, preparing, cooking, and baking, with many of the ingredients coming from her garden.

I was about nine years old when I started helping my aunt in the kitchen. She taught me how to make chard or spinach ricotta pies, fresh pastas with tomato sauce or pesto made with ingredients from her garden. My father planning and cooking elaborate Sunday lunches for our family, and my aunt’s vegetable garden in the Italian Riviera are my earliest food memories.

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Were you always going to be a chef?
Yes, it was my destiny. I started culinary school at the age of 13 and graduated at 18 with summer internships in Venice, Switzerland, and France. I began a professional career after graduation and have cooked almost every day since, with the exception of vacations and Mondays, my day off.

Pasta Italian Marco Fregonese Novitá
Novitá is a 60-cover trattoria located in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan on a quiet tree-lined street, where diners can sit under canvas umbrellas in the summer.

How do you describe your cooking style?
Modern regional Italian.

Which dish do you think you cook best?
Fresh pasta; ravioli, tortelloni, and fresh spaghetti. I’ve refined my dough and fillings and I believe they’re as good as they can be.

When did you open Novitá, and why did you decide on the name?
We opened in 1994, and my wife, who is from California, came up with the name Novitá because she thought New Yorkers would be able to pronounce it correctly. Most do not… the Novitá definition of the word implies innovation and originality, our culinary philosophy.

What can diners expect?
An authentic Italian meal.

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Lemon risotto Novitá
Amalfi lemon risotto with fried shrimp, artichokes, and capers, an example of Fregonese's distinctive "modern regional Italian" approach.

What kind of dishes might we find on your menu?
For fall we’ll have balsamic-glazed scallop carpaccio with pistachios; cacio e pepe–infused pepper and lemon spaghettini; sautéed purple balsamic gnocchi with porcini and pesto; spicy black squid Ink spaghetti with calamari; and Amalfi lemon risotto with fried shrimp, artichokes, and capers.

What are the secrets to a successful restaurant?
Consistency, quality, and good vibes.

Where is home, and what is it like?
A serene hideaway loft in the far West Village, where I live with my wife and our four dogs.

Fregonese prides himself on the consistency of his "modern regional Italian" dishes, such as balsamic-glazed scallop carpaccio with pistachios.

What do you like to do when you’re not in the kitchen?
Ride my Abici Granturismo (bike) all over the city and outer boroughs, and travel the world whenever I have the chance.

What are your plans for fall / winter?
We have a interior update planned for late summer and I would like to move towards a more sustainable menu—but it’s tricky when some of the clientele has been eating my cooking for 24 years.