“There’s just such a plethora of great, great things coming out of Italy as far as vegan and vegetarian food.”
Alicia talks with Toby Buggiani, the owner of Adelina’s in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which serves plant-based Italian cuisine. They discuss his wilder younger years, how his menu was inspired by Roman and Neapolitan cooking, and the latest developments in the search for the perfect cashew mozzarella.
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating on How We Get To Next. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. The show asks the question, “How do identity, culture, economics, and history affect a diet?”
In this episode I talk to Toby Buggiani, owner of Adelina’s in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. While the restaurant has always been vegan-friendly, in 2019 it’s now completely vegetarian. We discuss how he ended up in food, the natural, vegetable-forward nature of Italian cuisine, and what this shift could mean for business.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you so much, Toby, for being here.
TOBY BUGGIANI: Absolutely, it’s great to see you.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
TOBY BUGGIANI: So I grew up, I was born in Rome. My mom was American, my dad is Tuscan. My dad is a painter and my mom is an educator, and they met in Rome and they had us. So, and we lived a little bit outside of Rome, a place called Isola Farnese, which is sort of northeast of Rome proper but it’s still kind of within the Rome area. And when we were five or six we moved to New York City, and I think that was 1977, 78-ish. And so yeah, I guess I grew up, both my parents are super, super liberal. My mom became sort of, she was the lower school head of the Little Red School House and my dad was sort of this, and still is, this kind of crazy painter, performance artist, etc.
So we grew up, and I have a twin brother, so we grew up eating many different things. I mean, we were definitely not vegetarian growing up. My dad was a really good cook. My mom was a good cook in her own right, but my dad was an exceptionally good cook, and so we grew up sort of instilled with the wonders of vegetables, especially like, in Italy, vegetables are absolutely amazing. So we sort of grew up really loving vegetables and learning about vegetables and olive oil and all kinds of things. And we also grew up instilled with, you know, a very liberal point of view, with sort of, I mean I hate the term, but kind of a social justice point of view.
I don’t know what else to say besides we grew up eating many things and experimenting with food, but I think those two qualities kind of somehow, like, intertwined, and eventually I decided that eating meat was not such a great thing. And I became sort of, both my brother and I, my brother is vegan actually.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh, wow. So, when did you become vegetarian?
TOBY BUGGIANI: I,I sort of toyed with it probably in early high school, but I didn’t become fully vegetarian probably until I was, like, 19 or 20 I’d say. But I had, you know, so I grew up in New York City after a certain age, and I, my brother and I were both scholarship kids at this Upper East Side fancy high school, and we felt very, kind of, very much like outsiders, because we grew up in Greenwich Village, we grew up very poor because my mom was a teacher and my dad was a painter, so we shared a tiny apartment, my brother and I had a bunk bed and we ended up going to school with, both, like, for elementary school and high school, we went to school with kids who were much wealthier than us.
So it was kind of a weird thing where we had a great education, etc., but we were kind of surrounded by people that, you know, had nothing to do with our lives outside of school. So I guess I’d always had the sense of not really belonging, and I guess in, by late high school I got into, like, really heavy drugs, and I sort of cleaned up, eventually, and it was friends, I was kind of a punk rock kid, growing up, like, downtown in New York City in the late 80s, early 90s, most of the kids that I was surrounded by were kind of punk rock kids. Many of us were writing graffiti and we were generally kind of crazy kids. So I got into sort of like heavy drugs and then I cleaned up, but it was a number of friends who were in sort of the New York hardcore movement, which, you know, a lot of that is kind of what’s called straight edge, helped me when I came back to New York City, sort of stay away from kind of heavy drugs. And they were vegetarian, and I’d always leaned in that direction but hadn’t been exposed to enough people to know that that was kind of like an OK way to be. And that was really helpful.
I became vegetarian. I sort of had a very different lifestyle, worked out, kind of ate vegetables, and of course I had always loved cooking, and it was a really easy transition for me. I didn’t miss meat at all, you know, because my dad kind of grew up showing us how to cook, etc., I had a plethora of things to eat and make and I was always super happy about it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, and when did you decide to pursue food professionally?
TOBY BUGGIANI: It was pretty late. I mean I, kind of, I kind of stumbled around after, like, I went to school for literature, but you get out of college and I was, I guess I was a literary scout for a while, and I, but I had a hard time, and I liked writing fiction, but I don’t think I was a good enough writer or didn’t have, like, the persistence to stay with it, and I also didn’t have a trust fund, you know?
So it was, I had to face certain realities about, like, where I was economically, so I got into, I guess it was the early, you know, I don’t, I guess it was the early 90s, 2000s, when there was like the internet bubble and I got into, sort of, software development on a very small level. Like I was, I think my title was, like, producer or something, right? I knew a little bit about stuff but, basically, I was coordinating what other people were doing. And I kind of did that type of work mostly for educational software companies for a while, and as time went on, like, I really realized it wasn’t for me. I also was getting older and there was always an 18-year-old kid who knew ten times more than what I did, and I decided it wasn’t, like, the right field for me, so I did kind of bounce around a bit. And then I started managing this old school café in Greenwich Village called Café Reggio, and I did that for, I think it was like six or seven years, but towards the end of it I started thinking about opening my own place.
And it was, what I had in mind was pretty much a wine bar with a few food items. And I, eventually, after a few years, did open a place in Greenpoint and I had sort of a very limited menu, but people were coming in to eat. So very quickly I had to kind of ramp up the menu and that’s what I did. But I really had not had any, sort of, professional kitchen, cooking experience. It was a little bit mind-blowing, because I was the only guy in the kitchen, and I was working, like, insane hours. And then over time I was able to pull one person in and then another person, and now, seven years later, I have a really great vegetarian chef in the kitchen from Rome and the food is great, etc.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And why did you want to open a wine bar specifically?
TOBY BUGGIANI: Well, one, I wanted to do mostly vegan and vegetarian food. So I wanted to limit the amount of food to things that I knew that I could make well. And, two, I love wine.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And what was the menu like when you first opened?
TOBY BUGGIANI: I had been visiting friends in Naples, and Naples is a crazy city. It’s, to me, it’s like the one bastion in Italy that’s left that still retains kind of its soul, that hasn’t been sort of globalized to some degree. It’s still very, very much Naples. It’s both dangerous and beautiful and ugly and creative, and it’s just a really cool place. And this friend of ours, Alessandra, brought us to this really sketchy neighborhood and she had me eat this thing called pizza frita, which was like this pizza with fried dough, and I was like, “Holy crap, this is crazy.”
And, so we ended up, that became the main item, and I made a bunch of bruschetta and salads, etc., but sort of the, and some pastas and so on, but I decided I was going to make a pizza. I also had very, you know, I opened the restaurant with probably about a third of the money that most people need to open a restaurant. So everything was really DIY. I took this, I found a place where a restaurant had gone under, so a lot of the bones were there, so I didn’t have to install, like, the hood on the roof, etc.
I’d saved money wherever I could, and I didn’t have enough money to do, to get a serious pizza oven, and with this, you know, flash-fried pizza I was able to work with a regular oven and still make really good pizza. So a lot of what I did was contingent on the equipment that I could purchase. And everything I bought was, like, secondhand. When restaurants go under there’s like these auctions that happen, so I was able to get everything for very little money. And I somehow squeaked by, and I was able to open this place.
ALICIA KENNEDY: But you did have meat on the menu at some point, right?
TOBY BUGGIANI: Yeah. Yeah, yeah yeah. I’ve always had, until actually today, we’re now fully vegetarian and vegan, I always had a menu that was like about 90 or 95 percent vegan and vegetarian and a little bit of free range meat. And, you know, quite honestly, I hated doing it, but the reason I did it was that I wanted to make sure that I could still pay the rent, and my kind of rationale for it was it’s better to have a restaurant here in this location that is 90 percent vegan and vegetarian than that place going under and another place opening in that space that is not, at all, that, like, is fully meat-heavy.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what inspired you to cut it out for this year?
TOBY BUGGIANI: It’s something I’d always wanted to do from the beginning, and I had been very cautious about taking that final plunge until I felt like there were enough vegetarians and vegans that knew we existed, that I felt like we could, you know, support the costs of the restaurant on people knowing, you know, with just vegans and vegetarians coming in, and omnivores who were OK with a vegan and vegetarian place.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. I feel like Adelina’s has been kind of a go-to for vegans for a little while.
TOBY BUGGIANI: Yes.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And how do you think that happened? Like, I don’t think you advertised, as such, but all of a sudden everyone was like, “Oh, there’s cashew mozzarella here.” We all knew all of a sudden.
TOBY BUGGIANI: Yeah, I don’t know exactly. All of that is a mystery to me, but I did, you know, what I tried to do was, like last year I did a bunch of events that were, which I called “perfect pairings,” where I had sort of natural winemakers visiting, and vegan chefs, and I would pair food items from the vegan chefs with natural wines from the winemakers and both the chef would be there and the winemaker, and it was a way for me to sort of break open two silos and mix these two different groups, you know? Two different loves of mine. One is vegetable-focused food and the other was natural wines, which are also incidentally vegan. So, I’m not really sure, because I don’t, I am definitely not a marketing guru. But I try to do things that are of interest to me and I was hopeful that other people would find it interesting, and, yeah, somehow it seems to have worked out OK.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I think natural wine and vegetarian, or vegetable-focused, food kind of have a natural affinity, but I’m not sure why I think that or feel that way. But is that true?
TOBY BUGGIANI: I think so.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Is it, are those pairings more…?
TOBY BUGGIANI: Well, I think that they, there’s a lot of commonality in the, I feel like, you know, generally the kind of vegetables we get, they’re grown by farmers who give a shit, and natural wines are wines that are made on really small scale by winemakers that give a shit. In that they’re, when you go to, sort of, conventional wines they’ll make a run of like 500,000 cases or something, or 200,000 cases, whereas a natural winemaker might make, like, 5,000 bottles, which is, like, infinitesimally smaller, and it’s all done by hand.
Like, it’s basically wine done the right way, and I feel the same way about people who are growing vegetables and so on. It’s about, you know, caring about what you’re, what you’re pulling out of the earth. But you know, I’m oddly also a real hedonist in that way. I actually really enjoy really good vegetables and really good wine and I have a hard time, like, drinking a conventional wine or eating, you know, food from a chain or something like that. I just am not interested, you know?
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. And a lot of people might think, especially if they’re used to like Italian-American food, that it’s meaty and super cheesy and everything, and how, how is the food at Adelina’s different from those ideas?
TOBY BUGGIANI: Yeah, I mean I think, you know, I think Italian food can be very meaty and have a lot of cheese etc., but you know, Italian, it’s so strange to me, like, when I hear that because it’s this tiny peninsula that’s, like, roughly the same size as New York State, but within that space there are so many cultural variations and food variations and you can go from, like, one town to another and they’ll make completely different food. So it’s kind of, like, food culturally extremely concentrated. It’s this, like, really concentrated place with lots and lots of different cuisine. So it hasn’t been difficult for me to sort of pull out all these different vegetable-focused dishes, like, from all over Italy, but, you know, I focus mostly on Roman stuff. There’s, there’s just such a plethora of great, great things coming out of Italy as far as vegan and vegetarian food.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What would, how would you describe a Roman style of cooking?
TOBY BUGGIANI: I would just sort of point to the vegetables that are around Rome. Principally, like, some of the best things that come from around Rome are artichokes, amazing tomatoes, amazing arugula, asparagus. There’s zucchini, like specific zucchini, like, there’s the Romanesco cauliflower. There are just specific vegetables that come from that area that are beautiful, and there’s dishes that go back to Roman times, even, that are, that have been around forever, that are absolutely amazing. You know, of course, we take these dishes and we, kind of, look at them from many different sides and then, sort of, make, you know, our rendition of them.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. And what’s, do you anticipate the reaction to the total change of the menu being negative at all?
TOBY BUGGIANI: I hope not. I don’t know. I’m sure that we’re going to piss some people off.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah.
TOBY BUGGIANI: But I have a feeling that it’ll be OK. You know, it’s such a small change, literally we’re taking two dishes off the menu.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
TOBY BUGGIANI: Out of many dishes, so I, you know, I can’t see it as being a huge problem. I think, by this point, like, even like meat-eaters that come into, like, Adelina’s know that, you know, that we’re mostly not that. I always looked at it as, you know, the gateway drug to, like, vegetables, because a lot of people would come in and end up eating vegan or vegetarian without really thinking about it, because there’s just that many options for them to eat meat. So it was, you know, it was a way for me to push my own sort of philosophy about food without hitting people over the head with it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. And were those meat dishes super popular?
TOBY BUGGIANI: Well, they sold well but I would say at least, like, 70 percent of people that I think were probably meat eaters were not eating meat coming into Adelina’s. So I think, all in all, sure, they were popular, but I think people will be OK without them.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. And are you still making the cashew cheese in-house?
TOBY BUGGIANI: Yeah, although, drumroll, we are actually, I tasted, I got in touch with Numu and had them send us a sample. We sort of put them side by side and, like, made a number of different tests with like the different pizzas we make, and I feel like that cheese, that mozzarella, that vegan mozzarella is better. So we are about to switch over to Numu. I also like supporting, you know, they spent a lot of time and effort into, like, making their cheese, and we want to support people that are doing something cool.
I feel like that’s, generally, I feel like there’s more excitement in plant-based cuisine right now, if you look at all the different types of cuisines that are being made. I feel like there’s the most sort of change and general growth in vegan food, more than any other sort of cooking segment. And I’m also more excited by it than I have been by anything else, so, and I really do feel, you know, like vegan cheese is, is really growing, you know? There are a lot of people doing some really interesting things with vegan cheese. So I’m kind of, you know, I’m excited to support people that are doing that and I’m excited to experiment more. We want to eventually put a vegan cheese plate, a vegan cheese board on our menu once we feel like it’s ready.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Are you going to be making those in-house?
TOBY BUGGIANI: Yes. Those we’ll definitely be making in-house.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What are you experimenting with?
TOBY BUGGIANI: I’m going to keep that under wraps until we’re happy with it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, Numu seems like the first vegan mozzarella that everyone likes.
TOBY BUGGIANI: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think so. Yeah, I think it’s good to support people. They’re doing a great product, so.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I’ve only had it, I had it at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop.
TOBY BUGGIANI: Yeah, of course. Yeah, man, I think Paulie Gee’s, I think Screamer’s is doing it on some of their pies.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. They just opened a new, a new shop here in Crown Heights.
TOBY BUGGIANI: Oh, that’s awesome.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. They took over a big, old regular pizza place.
TOBY BUGGIANI: Old, regular pizza place?
ALICIA KENNEDY: I used to love to go over there, but yeah. So, does it change anything about how you run the restaurant to take meat off completely, or no?
TOBY BUGGIANI: It makes me happier.
ALICIA KENNEDY: OK.
TOBY BUGGIANI: Totally, yeah. It means I have more of a clear conscience when I’m walking into my restaurant.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. And do you think that New York has changed in the time you’ve been opened, generally, in terms of its reactions to plant-based food?
TOBY BUGGIANI: Absolutely. I think, well, you know, when I was growing up there really weren’t many options for vegans and vegetarians. There were vegans, but it was, there were much fewer vegans when I was growing up. There were, there were, I knew a lot of vegetarians and I knew a few vegans, but I feel like that dichotomy has kind of flipped, where a lot of people have gone vegan, and I feel like veganism has really come into its own, and I’m really happy about that. I think, sort of morally and philosophically, I’m most aligned with veganism, and although I’m not fully vegan yet I eat mostly vegan, you know, I’d say about 80 percent of the time. You know, I’m a long-time, about 30-year, vegetarian, but in, you know, the last five years or so I’ve, you know, really cut out eggs and I only eat cheese a little bit, and mostly that’s when I’m testing recipes for the restaurant and so on.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Do you ever think you’ll go vegan completely?
TOBY BUGGIANI: Yeah, I think I will. I don’t want to, you know, commit to anything but I, you know, I’m, sort of, philosophically, I’m in agreement with veganism, yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: How, what do you think the philosophy of veganism is? Like, what is it to you?
TOBY BUGGIANI: Oh. Well, I guess it really does change from person to person, and people are vegan for different reasons. I guess generally, for me, all of that, you know, is really about animal rights. I mean, I think the other things are great, I’m really happy, I do believe that the science really points to, and facts really point to the fact that it’s much better for the environment. I do think it’s healthier although, you know, there’s probably arguments to be made both ways. Like, you know, I’ve had discussions with people who I respect very much who are not vegan and they can point to their facts about why, you know, a vegan or vegetarian diet is not as healthy as a meat diet. I disagree, but I don’t know, I don’t think there have been enough generations of vegans to really sustain that argument. My sense is that it is, but, I don’t know for sure.
I do think that even if it weren’t, let’s say I died five years earlier, it would be worth it to me. I just don’t see, I don’t know, I feel like it’s better to not, you know, I worry sometimes that vegans can, you know, really be very strong with their agenda when they’re talking to other people and I don’t know if that ultimately serves a good purpose. You know, I think people get entrenched, like they get defensive, and then they’re not open to the possibility of like, “Oh, maybe I could be a vegan.”
You know, I think it’s a really tricky thing. People just tend to shy away from something that they don’t know, and, and they get defensive when they know that they could be doing something and they’re not. So I don’t know what the right way of, you know, convincing people that it’s a better way to behave, both to animals and to the planet and for your health, etc. But I do think, I don’t know, I guess I’m kind of, you know, quietly, like an animal rights supporter without trying to be too pushy about it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Of course, yeah. For you, is, is cooking a political act?
TOBY BUGGIANI: Absolutely, yeah. I think so. I think, you know, every time you go to the supermarket or, you know, put something, you know, on a burner or, I think it’s absolutely a political act. I’m cognizant of it every time when I cook something, like, but I don’t think a lot of people are aware about that. You know, I think generally, the more people are educated about, it’s so hard not to sound preachy about that stuff, I’m going to stop it there. I don’t think, yeah, I mean, I think it is a political act. I’ll leave it at that. Without sounding too preachy about it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Well, thank you so much for coming on.
TOBY BUGGIANI: Yeah, my pleasure. Great to see you.
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