Andy Nusser is the executive chef and partner at the Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winning Casa Mono, a Spanish restaurant in New York. Nusser spent his childhood in Southern California and northern Spain. After a 10-year stint as an engineer in San Diego, a career change brought him to the Culinary Institute of America, from which he graduated at the top of his class. In 1995, he began cooking at Mario Batali's first New York restaurant, Pó, and when Batali and partner Joseph Bastianich opened Babbo, Nusser followed, spending five years as the Best of Award of Excellence-winning restaurant's chef de cuisine. In 2003, Nusser partnered with Batali, Bastianich and Nancy Selzer to open the 42-seat Casa Mono (and the adjacent Bar Jamón) to critical acclaim. Last year, the same crew set their sights beyond Manhattan, with Nusser at the helm of the trattoria-like Tarry Lodge in Port Chester, N.Y. Wine Spectator spoke with Nusser recently about why he loves restaurants in Spain, the benefits of being able to draw from experience in the Batali portfolio of restaurants, and which wines make him weak in the knees.
Wine Spectator: How did you first become interested in wine?
Andy Nusser: My parents definitely liked to have people over for dinner. The wine wasn't the big priority, but I guess it started with Gallo, you know, living in California as a kid drinking wine with dinner. I started very low, with large bottles of white and red wine with my family, and then learned about great wine on my own later on.
WS: What are some of your best memories involving wine?
AN: Going into a restaurant in Spain and being able to order a 1960 Rioja—the vintage of my birth year—was great. They keep those [older] vintages forever. That's a recent highlight.
WS: Tell us about the wine program at Tarry Lodge.
AN: Basically the wine selection there is a conglomeration of a lot of different restaurants' wine lists. We're very fortunate that we've tested the wine program from different restaurants such as Otto [the Batali team's Manhattan pizzeria] and Babbo. So the Tarry Lodge list is driven by a lot of wines that have been proven in other restaurants. The food that we have here at Tarry Lodge is a collection of greatest hits from Babbo, Otto, Lupa [the group's Roman trattoria] and even Casa Mono. They're classic [dishes] and they're played with classic wines.
WS: You serve a range of food at Tarry Lodge. How do you gear a wine list for your menu?
AN: If you were going to have three courses, a Prosecco or a Spumanti goes with your antipasti. Go into a northern Friuli, like Bastianich Vespa or Scarbolo Pinot Grigio with your pizza, then you could easily do a cross-over to red or stay with whites for your pasta. Our more substantial main dishes—braised lamb shank, osso buco, rib eye for two—would easily go with one of the super Tuscans.
WS: How does the program differ, then, from what you have at Casa Mono?
AN: Casa Mono is something where we've had so much fun because it's all Spanish wines. With close to 500 wines now, putting that list together was a huge undertaking, and it's such an opportunity to showcase all those Spanish wines in a book form. At Tarry Lodge, our menu is on one page. On the front is all the antipasti and pizza, and on the back is the wine. And right now it's hovering around 200 to 240 bottles.
WS: Is there a dream wine you'd like to have on your list?
AN: The Sassicaias. Whenever they come rolling through, they make me weak in my knees.
WS: How does it feel to return to cooking Italian food after concentrating on Spanish cuisine?
AN: I had been working with Mario since Pó. So what is that, in 1995? I did Casa Mono in 2003. About every five years, something new happens and now here I am in Port Chester, very happy to be cooking Italian food.
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