Pino Maffeo grew up in East Boston, but he’s cooked all over the country, from San Francisco’s Molhern and Shackern to New York’s Pazo with Patricia Yeo to Boston’s Sage and Restaurant L. Once honored by Food & Wine magazine as one of the best new chefs in America, these days you’ll find Maffeo cooking at Il Molo along the North End waterfront. “We try to do the classics right — clam chowders, lobster rolls, fra diavlo,” he says.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? My dad had a hair salon out in Beacon Hill, a place across from the MGH. I remember what I had — it was steak basted with garlic with one of those old-school, fluted mushroom caps on top. When I ate it, I was like, “Wow!” Who knows if the rest was good? This steak, wow. What did I know back then?
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? I don’t know if it’s about fixing. Boston has people on the scene in this city who are just as good as anyone in any other city or overseas. What would I change? It’s nice to go to New York, or Paris, or London, and to be able to dine out, late at night, and have a bottle of wine at 2 a.m. It’s nice to be civilized at night. This could open up doors toward more opportunities, including conventions and things like that. There’s a whole slew of people who work late. It’s nice not to rush and to have a civilized meal without a time frame attached.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? Boston has come a long way. When people thought of Boston, they didn’t think of it as a culinary destination. Now people go to places just to eat. I have eating vacations! I think Boston has become that, just from new people who have opened up restaurants here. Before that, Boston was a big secret, for better or worse.
What other restaurants do you visit? When I’m off, this is crazy, but I like to go to New York. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I have a ton of friends there. [In Boston], I’ll grab a drink anywhere from Eastern Standard to the Southie waterfront at Pastoral to Lucky’s. Or Ward 8 or Bricco, in the neighborhood.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think, “I want to work in restaurants”? My mother. Her kitchen. That’s the real deal. She really, really cooked. She cooked, and it’s crazy. Her style is contorted because we’d eat escarole and beans with braised stuffed pig skin. Then we’d have rhubarb pie. It just didn’t make sense! She lived in England and learned from a lot of English and Irish immigrants. Gooseberry pie, rice pudding. It was weird. Saturday night in my house, she would do a roast beef dinner. It was the English influence. Every person in my family is a food snob, especially my brother. Nothing is good enough. Nothing is great. The only good food is at home.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? Oh, God. Worst I’ve ever had? That’s a good one. I’m going to say in Italy, of all places. I was with another chef from Boston, my brother, and his wife. We’re driving. My uncle owns a house near the French border. We go to this place, it’s jam-packed, we’re hanging out, [people] had dogs in their purses, that kind of thing. We start eating, the food comes, and my brother is very vocal about food. My friend, the chef, goes, “Wow, this sucks.” I see in my brother’s eyes — he is a freight train. He doesn’t like to be ripped off in restaurants. It’s his biggest pet peeve. He says, “This sucks!” The chef came out to the table, and my brother said, “I wouldn’t give this to my dog!” So my worst restaurant experience was in northern Italy.
How could Boston become a better food city? I don’t know what “better” means. I think to have a true food city, you have to have tradition. I think you start from there. And I think Boston has great tradition and great history. I think we have chefs who used to take off and leave, like myself. And I think a lot stay; I think a lot hop around and get their education here, instead of leaving. I think it’s evolving and continuing to evolve.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. A lot are stuck in their ways.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? I’m not going to go there. But one thing that bugs me is when someone does something that’s “current” now — but was current 15 years ago.
What are you reading? You know what? I am reading Wylie Dufresne’s cookbook from WD~50. He never had a cookbook. It came out recently, for whatever reason. It reminds me of New York at that time. It brings me back to that time and connects me back to people I was friends with.
How’s your commute? I am a suburb guy now. I grew up in cities. I’m on the Winchester-Medford line, in the woods. My wife laughs at me. I grew up in houses connected to each other. I’m not a suburb guy at all. And [Route] 93, when I Uber, it’s jam-packed, stressful. It’s a lousy commute, I’ll be honest. It’s close to the city, but it takes long. I try to be the woodsy guy with flashlights and a knife, but I’m a city kid.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? I am a big believer that, if there’s a great bridge, then [any] flavor can unite.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? I feel there is a lack of great Asian restaurants, in my eyes. Certain regions, middle of the road, great Asian cuisine.
‘Every person in my family is a food snob, especially my brother. Nothing is good enough. Nothing is great. The only good food is at home.’
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Hmm. I have to think about that. I don’t know.
Who was your most memorable customer? Whether it’s a ballplayer who dates a supermodel who’s Brazilian, or a drummer, or a race car driver, or an electrician, or a plumber, or a fireman — I think every encounter has intrigued me. There’s not one . . . person.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? Easiest question: My mother’s basement. If I was going to die tomorrow, I wouldn’t go to a restaurant. I want to taste those flavors and eat the stuff frying on the stove. I want it in the basement, where I grew up with my brother and friends after soccer practice, eating whatever was in tinfoil.Interview was edited and condensed. Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com.