East Village hot-spot-in-the-making Cantina is the work of many Jasons. First there’s honcho Swamy, former owner of Movida. Then there’s designer Volenec, who also did Allen and Delancey and has worked with Serge Becker. And finally there’s consulting chef Neroni. Sure, we poked fun at Neroni during his brush with the law, but given the quality of his tasting menu’s pork shoulder dulce de leche (the full menu rolls out November 1, with beer and wine, brunch, and delivery to follow), we were glad to see him in Cantina’s three-by-four open kitchen rather than a jail cell (the jail cell probably would’ve been more spacious, but not as romantically lit). As soon as he put his knife down, we asked him what became of his beef with Porchetta, and where he’s been since then.
What happened with the whole Porchetta thing?
It was never pursued. Mr. Ozersky and the Eater boys blew it a little too out of proportion — I was never put in jail or handcuffed or held over night. I went to the police station with my lawyer and he talked to the cops, and that was it.
What’ve you been up to since then?
I took the summer off after my house collapsed last year. A fireplace went through my ceiling, and I lost my house while all that shit was going on. I got an opportunity to do something in Portland this summer, working in a sausage shop and at a restaurant called Toro Bravo.
So how did you get involved with Cantina?
When I was done with that, I went back to New York because I found an apartment. [Swamy and I] had the same press agent; he gave me a call.
The open kitchen is about three feet by four feet — what’s it like working in such a small space?
This is smaller than the original Tasting Room [where Neroni cooked], and with less equipment. It’s very tough — there’s a lot of juggling. There are two burners and you’re constantly moving stuff to get in and out of the oven. It’s not a lot of fun.
Some people have referred to the place as a Cuban restaurant, but the menu is more Spanish.
Cuban was originally what Swamy wanted, but in this neighborhood, there’s so many great Dominican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican restaurants. I’m not going to compete with them because they do it better. My grandfather was born in Cuba and grew up in Puerto Rico, and some of the stuff he taught my grandmother to cook ended up on the menu.
What are you experimenting with for when the new menu rolls out around November 1?
We aren’t really pushing the envelope, as some might say, aside from the almond butter with lamb’s tongue and membrillo. I was a chef at 71 Clinton when they took it off the menu because it wasn’t selling very well. Here it sells really well on weekdays.
You’re open till midnight now, but you’ll eventually serve food till 4:45 a.m.?
We’ll have a limited menu at nighttime — a sandwich or two and maybe empanada and olives and nuts.
What are you working on after you leave Cantina after the New Year?
There is something I’m working on, but I can’t talk about it. In the meantime I’m going to be in and out. My replacement Jesi Solomon, who was a sous-chef at Stanton Social, is already here.