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GETTING SALTY

Award-winning chef Mark Ladner is coming home

The Belmont native opens Bar Enza at the Charles Hotel

Bar Enza's Mark Ladner got his start cooking in Harvard Square before going on to fame in New York City.Handout

Mark Ladner, 51, grew up in Belmont and hung out in Harvard Square as a kid — and even worked there, at Café Fiorella — before ascending to the New York City restaurant stratosphere, cooking at Mario Batali’s Lupa and Del Posto. Ladner led Del Posto beginning in 2005, where he received four stars from The New York Times and a Michelin star. It was a heady era: He was one of Batali’s closest colleagues, privy to his outsized hedonism and, later, dramatic demise. (Batali was accused of sexual misconduct in 2017 and subsequently exited his restaurants.)

Today, Ladner’s living in Central Square and hanging out at the Middle East.

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“They just reopened it in all of its full glory, and there are five fully operational stages all performing at the same time. It was awesome. You don’t see that every day or everywhere, for that matter,” he says.

A few blocks away, he runs the brand-new Bar Enza at the Charles Hotel, once home to Benedetto and Rialto. He hopes this neo-trattoria will attract a mix of college students with bar snacks under $20 and fancier grown-ups accustomed to Italian fine dining.

What drew you back to Boston after a pretty successful career in New York City?

Well, I’ve been trying to get out of New York for a while. You know, I sort of did my time. It just chews you up and spits you out. It’s pretty relentless.

Also, just living there, it’s so prohibitively expensive. And it doesn’t really have a lot of the spirit that it used to have … [there has been a] corporate takeover of a lot of that more independent, entrepreneurial spirit.

And my parents are here, they’re getting older, I have other family here, and my kids are grown and off to school.

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I spent a lot of my formative years in the 1980s hanging out in Harvard Square at the Pit, you know, skating and misbehaving. And then I started cooking on Church Street, which is only a stone’s throw from here. So I’m familiar with Harvard Square. I was around when [the Charles Hotel] opened, and I know how iconic this hotel is, for many reasons, and the potential for the space to make a positive impact on the Square. I’m the type of person who likes to work in the restaurants that I’m involved in — and, as you know, this is a nice enough and big enough space that I feel like I can sink my teeth into something for a while.

How do you see Bar Enza as fitting in with — or being different from — what’s already in Cambridge and Boston?

It’s decidedly not fine dining. The thing I like about this space is that it’s actually sort of multiple spaces layered on top of each other, so it gives us the flexibility to provide a lot of different types of experiences. It’s basically just a vanilla box that we put really nice furniture into. There’s an outdoor patio that can be very relaxed, where we can serve probably most of the year. There are some heaters already embedded in the canopy. We have a really, really big lobby bar and lounge area: a lot of hand snacks, a lot of little fried food, a lot of meats and cheeses, and vegetables and stuff, cold antipasti. So that’s like about 90 seats there, with the outdoor patio and the lounge in the bar.

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And then we have two dining rooms, plus a giant private dining space. We’ll also have a secondary menu that has more traditional appetizers, a lot of salads and crudo and things like that, and hot appetizers, and then certainly an extensive pasta menu.

So we’re hoping that there’s this sort of barrier of entry that’s under $20 for one menu. In terms of my personal experience, it’s much more informed by the food at Lupa. That’s where I was happiest. Del Posto was more of just a challenge. I’ve never been motivated by competitive fine dining.

I can’t interview you without asking about Mario Batali. He had a spectacular rise and downfall.

It was kind of abrupt, just in the sense that he went to bed a superstar and woke up the next day completely ruined, even though everyone sort of saw it coming. I mean, you know of his reputation. He was gregarious with this Faustian level of celebration for life. He was a fun guy. I traveled the world with him for 20 years. He certainly did a lot for me. We did a lot for each other. We were business partners for most of that time. So he was out sort of brand-building and empire-building, and I was tasked with keeping the train on the tracks in Manhattan. When you’re out there partying and just misbehaving, in general, things get a little murky.

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How did it affect your career?

I had already left the company about two years prior, so it didn’t really affect me that much. And then I never got dragged down into the trouble. I never personally misbehaved, so I didn’t have to deal with any of the consequences of that, fortunately. I don’t know if I necessarily was deliberately trying to be some sort of ethical role model, but I definitely didn’t misbehave in that way. And then, you know, certainly a lot of my friends and colleagues were profoundly affected. A lot of the restaurants closed, and everything sort of went sideways, but I was out of the group by then.

Let’s talk about Boston and the food scene and growing up around here. Are there any formative restaurants that you loved?

I was a typical sort of ‘80s latchkey kid. I didn’t do a lot of fancy dining. I started coming into Harvard Square on the bus when I was quite young. I mean, it would be considered child abuse, probably, in this day and age.

I remember, when I turned 13, my mom took me to the top of the Pru for lunch one day, and that was a pretty big deal. I’d never been to a fancy type of restaurant before that. We used to go to Chinatown a lot. I have fond memories of that. I remember going to this one place that was probably my favorite called La Groceria, which is where I think Craigie [on Main] is now.

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I remember going to Harvest when I was a kid. That place is still kicking. My mom managed salad bars in the ‘70s, so I was really into salad bars, and there used to be a place called 33 Dunster Street. I used to love that place. It had a massive salad bar!

I worked at Olives, at the original little Olives in Charlestown, in the early ‘90s. I worked with Barbara [Lynch] there; I’m tight with her. I’m actually going to hang out with her and Lydia [Shire] on Friday night. We’re having a dinner party, which should be fun, at Lydia’s house. She’s going to throw down.

Where do you eat now?

I’ve been here about six months. My favorite place is probably Select [Oyster Bar]. I also go to Neptune. I like what Colin [Lynch] does at Bar Mezzana a lot. I like Giulia for Italian food, and Santarpio’s and Newbridge [Café] and places like that out in the ‘burbs, which is really cool. I’m really into developing a new fondness for [steak] tips culture.

What do you think about the future of Harvard Square?

Until the students started to come back, which was only, you know, maybe a month ago, it was really a ghost town. I was getting worried. When I was a kid, it was very busy. You had to wait at the crosswalk behind people to cross the street. I haven’t seen that once since I’ve been here. Maybe it’s just because before I lived in New York, and there was that level of density.

There are a couple places I do like to eat here, but there aren’t a ton. I’m trying to find that balance between being an adult restaurant but also having access and affordability and appeal to younger folks as well that don’t have huge disposable incomes. So we’re hoping to sort of walk the tightrope between the two. ... There’s enough space here that the back can be an adult restaurant, and the front can be a lively snacking and dining bar. We have probably 20 items that are under $20. I guess we’ll see? More information tomorrow!

I just feel like asking you this: What were your feelings on Anthony Bourdain? Truth-teller? Overrated?

He was iconoclastic without a doubt. I was friendly with Anthony, when he went by Tony, which was before “Kitchen Confidential” came out. He was the chef at a restaurant in the One Fifth space, which we ended up taking over as Otto. I was friendly with him there, so I got a chance to go out with him before he was famous, in all those clubs, all the punk rock bars.

He actually gave me his trilogy, with “Bone in the Throat,” even before “Kitchen Confidential” came out. I’ve traveled with him to Europe with Mario before and in other places. So, yeah, I think he’s an incredible guy. He was obviously, you know, a gifted linguist. And I thought he had a really refreshing opinion on a lot of pop culture. I don’t think he’s overrated at all. I think he struggled with fame. I think he was a reluctant mouthpiece.

Do you think the culture in kitchens has changed? What’s different now?

I don’t think it has. Certainly Anthony celebrated the murkier aspects that were sort of romantic at the time. I don’t think people really find that to be so great anymore, obviously drug- and alcohol- and sex-fueled environments. Some of us old-timers, that’s what originally attracted us to the industry. As Anthony says, and I’ve been saying this a long time as well, when I came into the industry, it was all ex-cons and drug addicts and just miscreants.

The whole thing that attracted me is that it was the fringe of society. It wasn’t highly educated people who were drawn to this industry. That’s what changed it a lot, when people who were raised better and educated better started being attracted to the industry through, you know, the Food Network and other things like that, seeking celebrity. And it just became sort of glamorous, which I do think Anthony had a lot to do with, but he did it in a really cool way.

Earliest food memory?

Like I said, in the ‘70s, my mom was running salad bars. I remember grazing the salad bar after camp, which you can no longer do, but that was before the age of sneeze guards. And I had an epiphany over canned chickpeas. I just think canned chickpeas are the coolest thing. I love them and use them to this day. I swear, seriously, they’re the perfect food. Every single one is perfectly cooked every time.

Favorite binge-watch?

I’m a YouTube fanatic. So I go down the political rabbit hole. I’m really into politics, not in an educated way. Just as an observer.

Favorite snack?

I’m a Pringles fan.



Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her @kcbaskin.