Three things to know about Samba Brands' latest restaurant, Bocce Bar: 1) It's clearly Italian 2) only it's not … traditional 3) and exec chef Timon Balloo might play Bocce ball with you if you ask nicely. We spoke to Balloo about the first week at Bocce Bar, how people love it but are semi-confused and expecting fettuccine alfredo (there is none), how excited he was to win a game of Bocce, and more serious things like the passion for Italian culture that brought Bocce to life, the direction he's taking with his dishes and plans for the future. Here's what he had to say:
Tell me a little bit about the concept for Bocce and how it came to be.
Well, the concept of Bocce – it's still evolving so I don't like to commit to it too much. When we were opening Sugarcane, everyone wanted to define us right of the bat. Up until the first year they were still asking, who are we, what are we doing. We didn't really have a definition, we just said we cooked good food. And so, that's kind of like the way we do things. At least with the name Bocce, with the Bocce Ball court, we're definitely Italian. There's no way to get around that. But within the spectrum of Italian, I don't know where we'll be defined and nor do I think I want to be defined.
We toy around with words … are we modern …. We're definitely not authentic. We're just trying to cook good Italian food and pay homage to all the regions of Italy and every grandmother that would be cooking and do them justice. And in many ways some avant garde, young, new Italian cooks do them justice also. Meaning, when you walk into Bocce, we have the Bocce ball court, you have the beautiful distressed dining room, rustic appeal, rustic look. We have wood stools, communal stools, we have these distressed buffet dinette tables where we use our hutches, we have a beautiful copper-rimmed and slate bar, we have a deli case with a Prosciutto spicer. So, you can see all these things have a little bit of distressed, rustic appeal, but then you also have things you would know from an Italian market maybe. A lot of the inspiration came as a joint inspiration from myself and the owners of the Samba Management team. One of the partners, Danielle, is deeply, deeply rooted … she's Italian, comes from a lineage of Italian restauranteurs, her father had an Italian trattoria growing up, so she always wanted to recreate somewhere an Italian restaurant. And coincidentally, during that time I was very infatuated with the Italian culture, a lot of trips all over the country. It was just like an Italian renaissance. Everyone was doing porchetta. About 2011-2012, we started playing with ideas. You were seeing a lot of Italian-inspired food showing up on Sugarcane's menu whether it was polenta or risotto or porchetta. Italians know how to eat. Their culture, their livelihood centers around food. It's easy to romanticize and respect that, so I gravitated toward that culture and hence the food I was cooking. We were really inspired by some of the great restaurants in New York like Il Buco Alimentari, where you walk in and it's a beautiful market; obviously Eataly made the impact in the United States with a mammoth of an operation and how romantic it was – the owners loved Eataly, they were shopping there, eating there, having business meetings there; it just related to them. So when it came time that our partners in Midtown said that they have the space available, our owners said, "let's do something with it, let's hold on to it and let the space speak to ourselves." And as it developed more and more they said okay this is what it's going to be, we love Bocce, they were married in Italy and they wanted to just have something in their portfolio that spoke to them emotionally. They have SushiSamba and really good branding concepts, but this one is very dear to their heart with the culture.
Overall, how was the first week?
Oh the first week (he laughs). Well, we did a preview and opened up for Art Basel. Obviously just because we wanted to test the waters and what better a time than Art Basel when you have so many people from so many demographics and cultures and regions of the world here upon Miami. So we tested the water and we received some pretty good feedback overall. It was a little challenging to open during that time, but it was important for us to kind of say, "hey, this is what we're about and let's see if people get it" and go from there. We also have a very heavy cocktail program and you don't often see that – you're seeing it more and more in a lot of Italian restaurants – but our beverage director from our London location, Duck and Waffle, Richard Woods came over and he's a very modern mixologist. He really wanted to take the bull by the horns and kind of allow the culture of Italy to speak to him whether he's doing a very strong Vermouth program, whether he's doing his own Limoncello, his own Negroni syrups ... we're even trying to toy around with our own Campari recipe. Obviously there's wine because it's very much of the Italian culture, but we wanted to just modernize it a bit. We eventually feel that the food will also be what we call – you know, we're calling it modern because we don't really know what else to say (he laughs). The point is we wanted to see how people would feel about cocktails, having Bocce bar … we opened, people are drinking cocktails, they're playing Bocce, they're checking out the food and it was intense. It was, honestly, I feel, just where it needed to be. The first week was a controlled chaos. We were opening up, not all the equipment was installed, not everything was functioning, it's still semi a construction site so that lends to the chaos, but we were still with the ingredients and they were still in the space and they were speaking to us. So even if we didn't produce everything on our menu, which we did 99%, we already started playing with new ideas and that was very, very important. This is like creating a baby, so we had birth in week one! You got a couple of days, then you have to bring your baby home and feed it yourself and that's kind of like what happen. You learn about personalities, and staff, did you hire the right people, do they get it. People see this and it's like when you walk into your grandmother's house in the Italian culture and in any culture, they're automatically feeding you. It's all about mangia, mangia, mangia and drink and eat. And I think we nailed it. We were able to start off like that. So, hopefully week two and three and four and years to come will be better, but we hope the community receives us well and we establish ourselves as a community entity and an extensions of the kitchens of all the people in Midtown and Miami and we can come together, break bread and play and drink together. That's the whole goal of this restaurant.
What was the best part about the opening?
Just, you know …. For me it was beating one of my Italian servers at Bocce ball. That was a big deal because I wanted to write on the menu, "Beat the Chef and He'll Cook You a Three-Course Menu," but then I started to play and I realized I suck and I can't put this on the menu because I'll be feeding the whole of Miami for free.
What's the feedback so far?
The feedback overall has all been positive. I don't think anyone's ever going to say, "oh, you guys suck" or anything like that. Everyone comes in and they're like, "wow", definitely wowed because I think my partner really hit it out of the park with the design team – the same team that designed Sugarcane and our projects over in London – I think they really just nailed the aesthetics of the space. The space is really cool and then you see the open kitchen and that's beautiful. We really just opened it all up and made ourselves just open to the guests and said, "this is what we're doing, let's eat and have a good time." People are very receptive to that, they love the space and I think we're getting good comments about the food too. I'll be honest, in the beginning we had somewhat of a little bit … It's not all of the Italian dishes you would expect to have… we had to figure out what is our philosophy on the dish. So, we had a Caesar salad because we had to have a Caesar salad, but we really love kale – kale is the brussels sprout of 2012 – so we toss it in the traditional salad with oven roasted tomatoes and serve it with some white anchovies and shaved parm. It's a Caesar salad, it's timeless. We have a super simple rigatoni. It's just a simple red sauce but sprinkle a little bit of mozzarella, use really good Paradise Farms tomatoes or Tina's or whatever's growing out there in our region. It's the approach that Italians use what's of the season and they use what's local. Where we can use local and tap into that philosophy, we're supporting that because that's the way that I cook, but more so that's really the European philosophy and that's more Italian than anything, to eat of the region and to eat of the season. That tomato pasta is beautiful because the ingredients are just right. It's just a past and red sauce, but it's divine pasta and red sauce. We have traditional in our own way and we definitely have nouvelle in our way. We use traditional ingredients in a way that's not traditional Italian, but it has all the elements. In 2010 we had the whole American revival – whiskeys, bourbons, nose-to-tail – but 2013 has been very much vegetable driven and people going back to eating healthier and eating grains. I'm really into cooking vegetables right now and preserving the integrity and simplicity of vegetables. It's like "damn, how could you make vegetables taste good?" As a chef I always want to put truffle or bacon on everything and it's a challenge for me to use vegetables, cook more vegetarian … and how could you make that good? That is an extreme challenge and I'm proud to say I think we have some really good vegetables! That's a very big thing for me, that's like someone going to AA. For me to say that I'm engulfing in the vegetable … that's a woosah, take a breath.
What are some of your favorite dishes?
The carrots for sure, the orecchiette pasta is great, the ricotta is awesome – we use a buffalo ricotta, we whip it lightly, finish it with a little bit of caramelized butternut squash and shaved truffles and truffle oil.
What were some of the challenges that you faced during the first week?
The challenges were that some people were coming up and saying, "Do you have alfredo pasta? What kind of Italian place doesn't have that?" So, we were getting a bunch of that. And it made me very, very nervous if this philosophy of 'our version of Italian' would work. It really scared me, like what are these people going to demand? What are they going to ask, are we doing to be over their head? Those were some of the challenges. I had a shitload of that man I'm not even going to tell you. People saying, "oh, this is not a panna cotta" … at the end of the day, I'm going to tell you straight up, I was like, "fuck everybody, we're going to cook the way we want to cook," and then now we had Graziano from Tiramisu and Spris and he was like, "I have my restaurant down the street, but you guys are awesome too." There's enough room on this block for all of us. It's good to get validation from the Italians and we're seeing more and more Italians come in. I had an Italian server come in from another local restaurant and he's like, "this reminds me of the food I used to eat back home, you're doing my culture justice." Those moments make me proud, so after all the bullshit and naysayers, when people like that come out it makes us feel good not because we want to pat ourselves on the back, but because we really want to pay homage to the culture and uphold the integrity and respect it.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice for the opening, what would it be?
(He laughs). Everything that I know I could never get in an opening like more equipment, more time to plan. You just gotta open and do it and throw yourself in the fire. So, more preparedness I would say. But you can never be that prepared, it's the restaurant business. Every day's a challenge and you have to acclimate yourself and just make shit cook. It would just be more time to better prepare ourselves. I would definitely fight for that.
Anything in store for the future?
Yeah. We have a shitload in store. There's more to come. I definitely want people to know about the 11 at 11. We don't do pizzas but every Saturday night, one night a week, at 11 p.m. we make only 11 pizzas and when they're gone, they're gone.
· All Coverage of Bocce Bar on Eater [EMIA]
· All Coverage of Timon Balloo [EMIA]
[Photo Courtesy of Samba Brands Management]