Sessanta inside the Sixty SoHo hotel might be John McDonald’s seventh restaurant, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less nervous to open this weekend. “I live with such a constant level of fear that I become anesthetized to fear,” says the restaurateur. “You put your ass on the line, especially today with social media where everybody can so easily criticize you.” Fortunately for McDonald, a healthy sense of humor — not to mention a very successful run of projects that includes Lure Fishbar, El Toro Blanco and Bowery Meat Company — helps him work through his anxiety.
“How you doin’?” he asks, “Sopranos”-style, to his chef Jordan Frosolone. The latest addition to McDonald’s lineup of popular spots is Sicilian-inspired Italian, which apparently gives him permission to slip into a phony mobster accent whenever he so pleases. But Sessanta is not so much a hangout for Joey Tribbiani as it is for the downtown set — think fresh seaside fare. “A lot of families came to the United States 150 years ago from the southern part of Italy, and that food has been more represented in things like spaghetti and meatballs and red sauces and sausage and peppers — very Italian-American cuisine,” says Frosolone. “In fact it’s much simpler in the sense that they really just live off of what they have locally and what the agriculture brings, and that was never really translated.”
For Frosolone, who has Sicilian lineage on his mom’s side, that means dishes such as fennel tortelli with sardines, pine nuts and raisins or grilled eggplant with burrata sourced from Puglia are key to his menu. “To be honest we [interviewed] a couple chefs that you could tell kind of tried to cheat it,” says McDonald. “They did tastings for us. We ate the food and I was like, I guarantee this guy Googled ‘Sicilian ingredients.’” As if Frosolone’s descent and cooking ability (he previously worked at Bouley, Hearth and Momofuku) weren’t enough, he also brought local connections with him to the role — he’s best friends with a boutique olive oil producer on the island who’s now supplying the restaurant.
Ingredients aren’t the only things coming directly from Italy; much of the decor was sourced from the region, including vintage chandeliers and posters. “As many things we could bring into the room that were old, that was the goal — to avoid bringing anything in that was new,” says McDonald. “[Sessanta] takes inspiration from Forties, Fifties, Sixties — Gio Ponti-inspired, Italian midcentury. So if you were a real architectural buff you’d look at the way the wood walls are done with the slat board, certain techniques with the wallpaper and mullions, the plaster done in a particular style. We didn’t want it to feel like another Italian restaurant in the city.”
The interior design of the spot, which opened Tuesday, was headed up by Martin Brudnizki, whose other clients include Soho Beach House in Miami, Union Jacks in London and Le Caprice in New York. Stepping into the space feels like traveling back in time and into someone’s living room. And while McDonald and Frosolone looked to Sicily for inspiration, they also made sure Sessanta felt New York. “Italian food I really feel is, especially in New York, the most accessible go-to kind of restaurant if you do it right,” says McDonald. “I think it works for neighborhoods, and Thompson Street has this great old-world feel. It wasn’t long ago you had these great mobsters still walking around the streets.” Cue the accent.