Diner Journal: Q&A with Caroline Fidanza

I’ve always thought Diner as the epitome of a Williamsburg restaurant. The decor is effortlessly beautiful with the raw interior of a rehabbed 1920's diner. The food is comforting, simple and tasty. The atmosphere is personal, warm and local. Since its opening in the late 90's it has been a favorite place for us in the neighborhood. At the magazine rack of the Spoonbill & Sugartown bookstore, I was drawn to the yellow cover of a magazine titled Diner Journal. I flipped through the beautifully designed publication. There were many tasty recipes for food, dessert and drinks, as well as stories about local harvest and personal food episodes. The warm personal voice of the magazine made me very happy. I looked at the masthead in the hope of interviewing the editor. Later I contacted Caroline Fidanza, who is also the chef for the diner. When I asked her what dish she'd make to impress a special someone, she said "I would make traditional sauce with meatballs and sausages to go with either ziti or some nice big rigatoni". Then she added "but that's something you make out of love, not to impress". I think I found out the reason why I like Diner and Diner Journal so much.

1: Can you tell me the story behind starting the Diner Journal?
It had been an idea for a long time to do a Diner cookbook. We knew that we weren't going to get a big publishing deal and without it, it would be hard to make the time and commitment to an in-house cookbook, we also knew that we wanted creative control over the outcome. Andrew Tarlow (who with Mark Firth owns Diner, Marlow & Sons etc.) had the idea of making the cookbook into a quarterly so that it would be more manageable and we decided that it shouldn't just be about recipes, it should also be about food and food producers as well, we wanted to employ the talent at the restaurants to contribute as writers, photographers, designers. We didn't realize at the time how ambitious a project it would become but for all of the people who work on it full time it's really been a pleasure. There's a lot of anxiety of course, each time we start on a new issue we don't think we're going to make it but so far we've done it and with each issue there's so much more we want to explore.

2: What do you think is the most unexpectedly tasteful combination of food?
I don't really deal in unexpected taste combinations very well. I stick to the classics, garlic, olive oil, lemon, parsley. I think right now we are making an interesting salad of peaches, red onion and basil. Summer fruits like peaches and watermelons work surprisingly well with salty, savory flavors.

3: What is the trendy ingredient right now?
I guess I feel the same way about trendy as unexpected. Heirloom varieties are certainly trendy during these summer months but that's a good trend. Pork belly was popular last winter and meatballs this spring. We unwittingly participated in these events without realizing we were. Sometimes a good thing just has its moment but we don't go out of our way to follow trends, that would be the end of everything good.

4: What is your favorite meal your mom (or anyone in your family) made growing up?
Anything in the Italian-American genre. Macaroni with sauce, lasagna, pizza, eggplant parmesan. I did have one aunt who made amazing fried chicken and we had Greek neighbors who would invite us over for dinner and that always blew me away.

5: When and how did you discover your talent? How did you start your career as chef?
I never really cooked until I decided to go to cooking school. I made dinner for myself in college and when I first started working but I never really thought about what I was doing much. However, I have always been interested in eating and gravitated toward jobs in the food industry but both the times and I weren't geared towards a cooking career. I worked in a bakery in college and for a catering company after an attempt to work in the arts, when I realized I could go to cooking school the light bulb went on. Beyond that I got really lucky with my first cooking job, if that hadn't happened I don't know if I would have lasted. I've always been hard working and have tried to create a good working environment for others, I think that's why the restaurants have been successful in terms of my contribution. I'm a good cook but I am not blessed, I have worked with people who are and there's a difference.

6: What is your favorite publication to read?
Food publication? I don't know if I have one. I used to love Saveur and before that Cooks Illustrated but I don't feel moved by them any more. There is a publication called the Valley Table that my mother picks up for me highlighting what's going on with food and farming in the Hudson Valley which I enjoy reading. I'm sure I'm supposed to say The Art of Eating but I often find it unreadable as I do Gastronomica and the other heavy, intellectual food publications. I read the New York Times and the New Yorker.

7: What’s your best dish to impress your special person?
I suppose I would make traditional sauce with meatballs and sausages and either ziti or some nice big rigatoni. But that's something you make out of love not to impress.

8: What’s in your fridge at home right now?
Three different kinds of butter, 5 beers, a bottle of champagne, yogurt, a head of chicory, lemons, garlic, pickles, dried seaweed, chocolate from Finland, almond butter, condiments.

9: What are you wearing right now?
A tank top and my underwear. No a/c.

10: What background music do you play when you host a dinner party?
I'm not the one to set the musical mood at a dinner party. I'm too focused on the food and the hosting. I like it if someone else does that although if I don't like the music I'll quickly become the worst DJ ever.

Thank you, Caroline!

Diner Journal can be purchased at Marlow & Sons, Whole Foods and Sugartown & Spoonbill.