Since opening Sfoglia on a barren stretch of Lexington Avenue in 2006, husband-and-wife owners Ron Suhanosky and Colleen Marnell-Suhanosky have been inundated with hungry Upper East Siders who were thrilled to have a sought-after pasta joint in the neighborhood. The couple made their first foray into cookbooks last September with Pasta Sfoglia (Wiley and Sons, Inc., $29.95), which won a 2010 James Beard Award in the single subject category and was included on several fall best cookbook lists.
Ron, who deals with the savory side of the menu while Colleen handles bread and pastries, sat down on a recent rainy afternoon to talk about how best to get a reservation at Sfoglia, customer pet peeves and when his wife once poisoned the family. We’ll have to wait to get Colleen’s side of the story, as she was due to return from Italy the following day, where she’d been living with their kids for a year so they could learn Italian.
Q: How does one go around writing a cookbook?
A: Well, you hire somebody to help you.
Q: To do the writing?
A: Not necessarily. I think that the great success to a cookbook is if you translate a recipe from a commercial kitchen to a home kitchen. That’s really the difficulty in creating a cookbook. I didn’t have too much trouble doing that. I had help from my co-writer, Susan Simon, and she’s written cookbooks before so she was able to help translate a recipe to the home kitchen.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about cooking pasta at home? People think it’s an easy, simple meal.
A: Great pasta dishes are all about the marriage of the sauce and the pasta and the pasta water—which is one of the recipes that I fought really hard to have in that book, because it’s such a major part of each recipe. My editor was like, “There is a recipe for pasta water?” And there is: You have plain water and you’re putting pasta in it and there is salt and you’re using that as part of an ingredient to the finished dish. That really helps the marriage of the two. The misconception about that in America is that you put the sauce over the pasta, and really the whole idea is that you are supposed to marry the two together and create this unbelievable bowl of pasta.
Q: Have you ever used jarred sauce at home?
A: No, never done that. It’s funny that you bring this up because I’ve been approached recently to create my own tomato sauce. And I won’t do it because it defeats the purpose of what I’m trying to get across and what I believe in—that you really can make a quick tomato sauce. There’s nothing difficult about it. In the time that you cook pasta, which is in 7-8 minutes, you could have a pasta sauce.
Q: What goes in it?
A: Garlic, olive oil, tomato and basil. You let it cook and then you add the pasta to the sauce.
Q: Between you and your wife, who’s a better cook? Although I guess that’s not the best question because you’re savory, she’s sweet.
A: Colleen is a good cook, although there have been times that she has actually poisoned us. When we’re living in Nantucket it was all over the news. She is a forager and she once picked what she thought was wild asparagus but it was blue indigo so we had to get our stomachs pumped.
Q: What is blue indigo?
A: It’s like a hallucinate drug. I was drinking that charcoal shake [in the hospital] and it was awful.
Q: So she’s not allowed to forage anymore?
A: Not for me. She can forage for herself.
Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to food? Like Kraft macaroni and cheese, Twinkies?
A: I love peanut M&Ms—that is what I call my piato uniquo in Italian. It’s a one-plate meal. Every now and then I binge on a bag of potato chips like any American would.
Q: So no Olive Garden?
A: No, no, I rather starve than eat that kind of stuff.
Q: Would you ever consider opening another restaurant in New York City?
A: Yes, actually I’m considering it right now.
Q: Can you tell us where, or is it a secret?
A: I can’t.
Q: When will we know?
A: Maybe in a month. But it’s not in New York City, or New York State, for that matter.
Q: You’ve been a guest on the Martha Stewart show before. You liked doing it?
A: I wouldn’t say that I liked it. I would say more that I was told that I was good on television so that’s how I am going to pursue it.
Q: Are you nervous on television?
A: No, I just don’t want to go about it with an ego. My approach about everything really has been with my ego just below the radar. I think it is better received that way. It’s more important that I get across what I’m trying to teach people or express to people. Not so much about me being the chef.
Q: Like Rachael Ray?
A: Well, that’s entertainment. Mine is more practical.
Q: This place is always jam-packed. Do you have any tips for people who want to dine here at a normal hour?
A: Getting through to us on the phone is a difficult process because we can only answer the phone when the phone calls come in, and we really do have two phone lines and we only have one person working the phones. What I tell people is to email their requests. We have a great website that people can go on and look at the menu and preview what the restaurant’s about.
Q: Any pet peeves that diners do?
A: Last night, actually, I had this incident that was kind of funny. I took a walk-in party of two. Seemed like a young hip couple. She was looking at the menu and she looked like she was perplexed about what to order and before I could even get into any detail about the menu she asked me if I had chicken piccata or veal milanese. And I was so close to letting out of my mouth, “I think you’re in the wrong part of this town. Maybe you should be downtown in Little Italy because that is where they carry that stuff.” I literally went on Facebook and posted it on my Facebook page—all these question marks: chicken picatta? Wrong part of town! I talked her into getting the pappardelle Bolognese. We brought out the pasta and literally she started picking off the pieces of parsley that we sprinkled on top. I just thought, those are the people—I wish I had some sort of doorbell at the front so they’d let me know that they were coming in and [I] could say, “No that’s OK—take a right turn down the street, there’s a place that serves that kind of stuff.”
Q: If somebody does send back food, chefs don’t do anything bad to it. Not here, of course, but in general.
A: No, no. You mean like if it has fallen on the floor, do we put it back on the plate?
Q: Or if they are allergic to something, do you just pick it off?
A: We just make fun of them in the back.
Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.