On a quiet, tree lined street in New York City sits a piece of culture so innovative, it’s actually surprising; which says a lot, considering that it takes a lot to surprise a New Yorker. Described as “original to a fault”, the restaurant Matilda is nestled on a cozy corner in the East Village where regulars flock and newcomers are intrigued by the cool and colorful, yet comfortable atmosphere and friendly service. However, those aren’t the only things that draw people to this small East Village favorite.
The first of its kind, Matilda is the only Mexican/Italian fusion eatery in New York City. The restaurant first opened its doors on October 5 2007 and it was created by Esteban Molina and Maristella Innocenti. It is named after their daughter, Matilda, and dedicated to her. From the name right down to the stylishly fun décor, they’ve made their business personal, evoking the blending of two cultures.
“Our Daughter is a fusion,” says Innocenti. “Now we also have a restaurant where we serve a fusion of Tuscan and Mexican cuisines.”
The owners of this humble establishment are quite modest themselves and they are always present. Upon entering the room, one might see Innocenti behind the bar mixing drinks and chatting with the customers. It’s easy to see how genuinely friendly she is. Her energy is contagious and she makes you feel right at home from the moment you walk in until you leave.
Some might wonder what would inspire such family oriented people to decide to open a restaurant.
“I’m still asking myself that,” says Innocenti. Then she goes into the story of how it all started; the beginning of what is now known as Matilda.
Innocenti was a bartender in Florence for ten years and she always cooked for friends. Since 1999, she worked as a chef at I Coppi, her sister’s Tuscan restaurant in the East Village. It was at I Coppi that she met her husband Molina. They were both chefs at I Coppi for eight years. As the two worked alongside each other, they realized many similarities between their native cuisines. After Matilda was born in 2003, they joked that they had a Tusc-Mex in the family. They also got the idea to open up a restaurant of their own, a fusion of their cultures, just like their daughter. Thanks to supportive friends who were willing to invest in them, their crazy idea came to be reality. That’s not to say everything has been easy.
Like every business, they’ve come across their share of problems.
“We were scared with the recession,” says Innocenti. “We thought we were going to have to close. We fought hard to stay open and fortunately, we made it.”
Matilda also offers a lot for a little. The prices are reasonable for the atmosphere and quality of food and service that you get. It’s difficult to imagine how they managed to stay afloat by asking such low prices for so much but Innocenti waves away any queries.
“Nobody makes money on the food anymore,” she says. “You have to make money on the drinks and our drinks are very good. We use only fresh fruit in everything. Also, with Esteban and I doing a lot of work and not taking tips, there’s more to share with the staff and I want them happy. These are my partners and if they’re happy, everyone is happy.”
Clearly, these aren’t your average restaurateurs. The simple fact that this restaurant is named after and dedicated to their daughter speaks volumes. Matilda is a living, breathing representation of this family’s past, present and future. And even though Matilda herself is nowhere to be seen, she’s present in the very architecture of the establishment.
Every corner of this restaurant has a name and is a representation of something bigger than just a place to eat. The history that resides here is nothing short of incredible. An elegant, central mahogany piece evokes a grandmother’s closet where a child would look for hidden treasures, but also defines two small niches for more private dining: la Zona Rosa and El Carro. Matilda’s Room is a corner lounge, La Mesa represents a family table and La Cantina is the long counter by the bar, where one can sit alone or in the company of friendly strangers. A string of words in Italian, Spanish and Matilda’s parlance envelopes the dining space to celebrate what binds the creators of Matilda: the love for food, diversity and family.
However, as amazing as the architecture is, it’s not what keeps patrons coming back for more. The two cuisines complement each other in an exciting new blend. It’s like eating the food you’ve always loved and being pleasantly surprised by new, delicious flavors that were never there before.
“We made an entirely new cuisine,” says Innocenti, “there’s no other Tuscan-Mexican fusion restaurant. To be able to bring something new and have it be successful in New York, that makes me very proud.”
Some would think that creating an entirely new cuisine would be quite difficult but their sous chef Saul Landaverde far from confirms any suspicions.
“All the cuisines are easy to make,” he simply says.
Landaverde is from Salvador and doesn’t speak much English. However, he’s been working with Innocenti and Molina since they opened the restaurant three years ago and likes the creative freedom he has in the kitchen. There are so many possibilities with a fusion of two cuisines as vast as Mexican and Italian.
Everyone is hard at work at Matilda; even the owners. Innocenti doesn’t slow down for a moment. She mixes the drinks and takes care of the customers at the bar without breaking a sweat but she loves what she does and she loves what they, as a family, have created.
“We’re real,” says Innocenti. “We have a real story that hasn’t been made up by a PR person. I learned from my mom how to cook. My husband learned from my mom and his mom in Mexico. So we’re real. We make mistakes. We don’t pretend to be perfect.”
Exactly how real they are is all too apparent, not only in the hard work that they do, but also in the way they greet their patrons. The familiarity between them is amazing and they greet everyone as if they are old friends. Their customers have only good things to say about the restaurant, Innocenti, Molina and their staff.
“I met Maristella before I even came to the restaurant, she was standing outside. She gave me a free coffee to welcome me to the neighborhood. She’s a very neighborly individual,” said one female patron. “The infusion of the two different cuisines is so interesting and original, I’ve never had anything like this. The staff here is very hard working.”
So, is Matilda just another hit-or-miss kind of place that lucked into being a hit? Luck has nothing to do with this East Village, Tusc-Mex phenomenon. It all boils down to delicious food, a beautiful environment and friendly service.
In Innocenti’s own words, “in a place like New York, it’s nice to come to a place where someone remembers you.”