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The Brooklyn Roots that Inspired Chef Thomas Joseph Perone

The acclaimed chef/owner of Brooklyn's hottest Italian restaurant remembers the five dishes that spawned his career.

Chef Thomas Joseph Perone is the co-owner and head chef of Brooklyn Roots in the neighborhood of Bay Ridge. This ethnic enclave, tucked alongside the Verrazzano Narrows and the eponymous bridge, has a robust restaurant scene home to celebrated cuisines of the Middle East, Far East, and Mediterranean. Brooklyn Roots is by far the toughest table to get due to the community vibe perfectly captured by the local management and employees, but the real star is the elevated “old school” Italian served up nightly by a neighborhood kid, and trained chef, who spent decades honing his craft throughout New York before bringing it all home to arguably the best red sauce joint in the city. Just ask the guy who stopped at Brooklyn Roots, first thing, after getting out of prison. We stopped by Brooklyn Roots to talk to Chef Thomas about the five dishes that inspired his career (and to have a “Matty Guns Special” — don’t ask; just order it).

Chicken Francese

Chicken Francese at Brooklyn Roots restaurant.

So, the first inspiration comes from my childhood love for white wine and lemon dishes. My grandparents moved here from Sicily. Every Friday, my grandmother would come over and she'd make different things, but the one that stands out the most is Chicken Francese. She used to make big frittatas, which I love to do, as well, and her Francese was like a big omelet, using lots of egg, and she would sauté it in lots of white wine, lemon, and butter. And from that time on, it was my favorite dish to make. My grandmother made me love lemon and acid and fat. She was crazy, but she was the only one who never told me to lose weight. She just told me to keep eating. I always remember those Fridays, and her encouragement.

Chimichurri Sauce

Ever since I started to cook, I’ve always made chimichurri sauce. It didn't make sense. I didn’t understand the attraction, but I used it in the steakhouses where I worked and in the pig roasts I did as a caterer. I always wondered why I loved this sauce until I found out about five years ago that I’m around 40% Argentinian. My grandfather left Argentina to go to Italy, where he met my grandmother, who was royalty in Calabria. She left her family and status to marry a car service driver from Argentina and, eventually, move to America. Thank God she did because I wouldn’t be here, but it probably could have worked out better for her. Just sayin'...

Samosas

This one is another curveball, but at least I knew the origins all along. My stepfather is from Pakistan. Once a week, he would go to a Punjab restaurant in Queens and bring back lamb curry, chicken curry, all these different curries. Nan with the cheese on it. I loved it all, at 10 or 11 years old, but what I loved most were samosas. He’d bring samosas that were filled to the brim with mashed potatoes and cheese and all that stuff. So, in my final exam for culinary school, I made a proper version of my grandmother’s Chicken Francese, the same way she did, but for the appetizer, I made samosas. We actually had people in the class who were from Pakistan, and they were like, “Are you kidding? This is so good.” My stepfather’s food was a big inspiration for me.

Thomas Perrone
Before Brooklyn Roots, Perrone held pig roasts and worked in steakhouses, as well as running his own catering company.

Pig Roast

After culinary school, I had my own catering business, Thomas Joseph Catering, that I ran out of a storefront in Red Hook. My cousin had an event in upstate New York, and she asked me to do a pig roast. I’d never done this in my life, but I studied how to do it, like the French do with suckling pig, and I did it. Turned out perfect. I ended up doing over 500 of these after that, and I even got a nickname, the Pig Guy, which I’m not so proud of, but I learned that cooking a whole animal requires a lot of attention to detail. People say pig roasts are easy, that you “Set it and forget it.” You can, I guess, but it probably won’t turn out the way you want because anything can happen. These are big jobs. People are lined up to eat. And when that pig comes off, and it’s just perfect, the feeling is incredible. I remember that feeling, and I put that kind of attention that generates that feeling into everything I make.

Mozzarella in Carrozza

Mozzarella in Carrozza at Brooklyn Roots restaurant.

Before I threw myself into culinary school, I was studying early childhood education. I was going to teach little kids. After some GPA complications, I got my act together and was taking my final exam before graduating with my Associate’s degree. I literally finished the exam and got hit in the head with the thought of Mozzarella in Carrozza. I couldn’t stop thinking about the best way to cook it. I didn’t know why. But I stood up and said, “I’m done.” I called my wife and said I was sorry. Maybe someday I’ll teach kids how to cook, but I knew in that moment, obsessing over Mozzerella in Carrozza, that I had to teach myself to be a better chef.

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