Who knew that Keith McNally, patron saint of steak-frites and New York bistro culture in general, was such an Italophile, sneaking around town all these years, tucking into plates of risotto alla limone and Sicilian-style meatballs? Jody Williams, who ran the kitchens at Il Buco, Giorgione, and, most recently, Gusto Ristorante e Bar Americano, had an inkling. “He was always at Il Buco, always at Giorgione,” she says. “He used to come in and eat sardines.” Now McNally will eat sardines for free, having stolen Williams away from Gusto. It did not take a whole lot of convincing—having Keith McNally make you an offer is, after all, the restaurant-world equivalent of having Tony Bennett ask you to sing a duet. While McNally is remaining characteristically tight-lipped about the project, allowing only that it “will be quite rustic in appearance and in summer have a large outdoor café,” Williams, who sets off on a whirlwind reconnaissance trip to Italy next month, is more forthcoming. She’s most excited about exploring the brunch and lunch opportunities that the large outdoor café affords, and, with the Balthazar Bakery ovens at her disposal, the chance to delve into the wonderful world of Italian breads. “I’m interested in a lot of street food from Palermo,” she says. “I’ll make panelle, maybe the tripe sandwich you get in front of the train station in Florence.” Mostly, though, she’s just excited about joining McNally Inc.
“I always wanted him to ask me to open an Italian restaurant,” she says, sounding a bit like a love-struck schoolgirl. “It was like my secret little dream.” Indeed, it seems like a match made in McNallyland heaven. “His brickwork is so beautiful,” says Williams about the ongoing construction. “He had his bricklayers put it in, so it looks 200 years old with all this buckling and swaying to it. I relate to that. When my guys are rolling out pasta and we cut it by hand, I’m begging to do it fast and not even look because I don’t want it perfect.”