At the Table with Joseph Marazzo at Virgola; a Tiny Gem of a Wine Bar

Only twice since starting my interview column have I walked into a space and gone, “Oh! Yeah…. okay.”

Places that feel very old New York do that for me. Places absent of wagon wheels and metal chairs. Places where I could imagine a crotchety writer knocking elbows with both a former junkie and a decked out socialite, all drinking dark red wine and swaying absentmindedly to music not coming from a Pandora station. The first time I felt that was at Exchange Alley in the East Village. The second, almost directly across town, was at Virgola.

I’d gone in for some prosecco and oysters with a girlfriend, with no intention of discovering a story. And yet one presented itself to me, in the form of the late-thirty something owner, Joseph Marazzo, who kept us entertained with romantic bits of the space’s history and stories of how he shaped his 6×60-foot space as it unfolded around him.

Later that night, after far too much (very delicious) wine and the romance of raw fish, I sent out an almost saccharine email to one of my editors. A few weeks later, I was back with a photographer and my recorder, to get the whole story down.

The abbreviated conversation is up in my column, but I couldn’t resist doing a Plates and Portraits version on here. Grab a glass and fall back in love with old New York.

Brent Herrig © 2013

photos by Brent Herrig. Using them without his permission is mean. And illegal.

Joseph Marazzo of Virgola…

As told to me… November, 2013

I’ve worked in the restaurant industry my whole life. I started when I was 17 as a busboy in a Japanese restaurant in Long Island near Rockville Center where I grew up, a small town. I thought it was just a part time job; I was a bus boy, I used to eat sushi all the time, it was fun, I made a few dollars and that was it.

I was very shy as a kid — I didn’t even have a girlfriend until I was 19 — and I was not a courageous or confident guy. I never went to college and never really had anyone to teach me many things, so I sought out mentors, and if someone was where I wanted to be in life I asked them questions. My guidance counselor was telling me I needed to apply to college, and I was kinda a hothead and I looked outside and I saw his brown Honda. And I said, “You know, you have all these papers on your wall. But I don’t want a brown Honda, and I don’t want to work in this little office, so I’m not going to listen to your advice. You’re pushing me to get these papers, but that’s not my style – I’ll do it my way.” So he threw me out of this office.

After high school I started working in a nightclub as a bar back, and my dream was to be a bartender. My god! If I could just be a bartender I could buy a car! I worked as a bartender and got stuck in it; made a lot of money, bought a car, traveled. It wasn’t until I was out of high school and traveled by myself, and then came back to the city to work, that I got confidence. All my friends got out of college and they didn’t have jobs, so they started working in restaurants; I was already managing restaurants in Manhattan.

I always knew I was going to do something of my own, but I always thought I’d help other people open their own things first and learn with their money. So I met this other Italian guy and we opened a bunch of little Italian places, and they were okay. And then I decided to move downtown, so I worked at the Hotel Gansevoort, I worked for Keith McNally, Jody Williams, a lot of really great people. And I always knew I was going to do something – something different.

But it didn’t work out. I tried, always, but maybe I didn’t believe in myself, because I always went in with other people and it never worked out; the money fell out, the space fell out, they found somebody else. So I got frustrated and decided to go into the real estate business. I worked really hard and bought a building out in Brooklyn. I didn’t know the first thing; didn’t know how to turn a boiler on, didn’t own a hammer. But I’d bought an abandoned brownstone crack house in BedStuy. August 14th was the closing date.

Two days later I met a woman named Federica, who’s from Italy. The girl walked into where I was working, and I couldn’t see straight. I flew to Rome and spent a few weeks with her there, and it changed my life. She changed my life, but being in Italy and seeing how they live – how they eat, how they take their time – really changed me. I’m, like, a math and science, Virgo, go-getter, American guy, and the rhythm over there is very different, so I learned a lot, and now I think I’m more of a mix of the two.

I met up with a friend of mine and he said, “Come to our house down in Sabaudia”. It’s a beautiful place by the water where a lot of soccer players have houses. And on this trip I had an oyster – it was amazing. Like I had never had an oyster before. It was just five guys hanging out on the beach: I had brought a bottle of gin, another guy brought a bunch of oysters, we had prosecco, and then we saw the fisherman going by with a giant swordfish, and one guy yelled to another guy, “Go buy two kilos of swordfish.” So he goes over there and brings this giant swordfish and made ceviche on the beach. Just five guys hanging out, very different than here, where you have hamburgers and beer and hotdogs. And then we were sitting in the town square having oysters and prosecco and I said, “That’s it! It’s just oysters and prosecco and salumi and formagi and stuff like that.”

I came back and I sold the building that I had built, and decided to open a place.

I wanted to be in this area, and I thought this space was unique. It was an Indian takeout place, with sheet rock and a couple of layers of flooring, and a big kitchen. It was a very successful place, so with respect I asked my father to go in and talk to the owner. I just thought it looked a little better for a gentleman to go in and say, “My son is interested….” rather than me go in and look like I’m trying to be a hotshot or something like that. And my father’s the kind of guy that, when he asks you something, you usually say “yes”. So about 15 minutes later he called me and said, “The place is yours.” It didn’t take long. So I took over the space and really didn’t know what to do. But, much like my brownstone, I believed in, “Ready, fire, aim.” And just started ripping everything out and said, “Let the place take on a spirit of its own.”

It was like urban excavation. I took the dropped ceilings down and found these old beams perfectly intact. We had spent a fortune on these big, beautiful stones we were going to use for flooring, and the day we started to put them down all the machinery was breaking as we tried to fasten it down. So we had to pull up one more layer and found the original stone floor, original Pennsylvania Bluestone, which you can still see on some sidewalks in the West Village. It was covered up, and we had to jack hammer 3 layers of tile to find it.

One of the women that came and told me about the place told me that there was a gate in the front and it was open in the back, and so they’d play soccer with the goalie in the front and back, and she was good because she used to bank the ball off the brick and soar it above the guy. I said, “Can you tell me about this gate?” And she described what it was like, and pointed out where the posts were in the broken stone. I knew I had to build a gate. So I called everyone I knew, looking for a welder, and most people don’t want to do artistic type of metal work, but I finally found this Greek guy who, like me, is a bit obsessive about things and picking his projects. We designed it together. He came here and we sketched out this gate, this dramatic entrance. Most people would want to use as much square-footage as they could to pack the space, but I wanted people to be really comfortable here and start with this big dramatic gate in this tiny little space. That took a while to make. It’s elegant, bit it’s a little dangerous with the spikes on top. And the little V’s for Virgola – that was my contribution.

The senior citizens I met that grew up in the area that used to play in it call it the “alleyway”. A few of them have contacted me; one’s become a regular, and the daughter of another came and took some pictures to bring to her father to see what’s been done to it. They called it the “alleyway” and it was a bad part of town at one point – the library was a women’s penitentiary, so they weren’t allowed to come down here. One woman told me how she kissed a boy in here. It was just a kiss but they weren’t allowed to be in this part of town; they lived on the other side of 7th avenue and snuck over here, had a soda pop and kissed. Talking with her was so fun – she reminded me of the old lady in Titanic – and that lead to the romantic side of this place and the “love lock” tradition.

I’m a bit obsessive – I’m a Virgo – and I like things to be perfect. That’s why it took me so long to open this place, meditating and making it flow. And then I painted it and it was perfect and clean and it smelled brand spanking new. So I realized it was like a new car; when it got its first scratch I was gonna be freaking out. And then I started thinking; I have a cat with one eye. I like things that are a little bit off. I’m a perfectionist, but then if I go buy something at the store and there’s one that’s been scratched already, that’s the one I take.

So the place was all squeaky clean, and I was like, “We need to mark it up somehow, or scratch it up.” And then I thought about the story with the woman who’d kissed a boy in here 60 years ago, and this bridge called Ponte Milvio where you sign your name on a padlock and clip it on this bridge, and it’s for love or good luck. So I was thinking that probably we’re going to have a lot of dates in here, and I wanted to create this cognitive experience of coming to Virgola and having a great time, even beyond the food. And what better way to mark it up with the signatures and wishes and love locks of my customers.

As far as how I choose a particular oyster or a specific wine…. Do you remember Pulp Fiction? So, halfway through the movie Sam Jackson and John Travolta’s characters have a dead guy in the car, and there’s blood everywhere. And they go to Tarantino’s house, and it’s a mess, and his wife is coming home soon so they’re in trouble. So they call Harvey Keitel, the Wolf, and he shows up and starts barking orders. Travolta gets offended, and Tarantino goes into this typical dialogue about how his wife buys the crappiest coffee, but when he buys it he buys the Kona blend, and it’s so great, and he pours it for Keitel. Keitel smoothes things over, Travolta shuts up, and Keitel takes a sip of his coffee and goes, “Hmm.” And raises his cup, takes another sip, and that’s it.

And when I take a sip of wine at a wine tasting, if I don’t get the, “Hmm, that’s good,” I don’t get it. If you don’t do the same with an oyster or a glass of red wine, if you don’t say “wow”, then it’s not good.

I think I just always did my own thing. I’m a simple guy, so if someone has what I want I just ask them how they did it. Fire, aim, and figure it out after. I’m such a perfectionist, but it’s never going to be perfect, so it’s just go-go-go. I didn’t open a place sooner because I thought I had to partner with a chef. But I never found one I wanted to partner with, so I came up with a concept where I don’t need a major culinary guy. And I’m also an amateur fighter; I box. And training to be a boxer is so hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s a joke how hard it is. You train for three hours a day and you’re boxing and getting pummeled and beat and you have to maintain composure; you have to relax while someone’s hitting you. And you go rounds and rounds and rounds, and it’s really hard. It’s a combat sport, of course, so you have to be strong, but you have to be mentally strong. The time you do you’re best is when you’re down and you laugh it off, because you have to keep going. You have to move. You have to know how to dance. The toughest guys I’ve ever met box at my gym, but it’s a simple, simple mindset. It’s mentally challenging and a sports cliché, but boxing has helped me to succeed in business, because when things happen I just laugh it off. Yoga too, because in yoga you breathe through the pain. You breathe through the stress. So I’m definitely about persevering.

Keep going. Keep going.

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