A visit to Zadie's Oyster Room on 12th Street
Photos and interview by Stacie Joy
There’s an early summer thunderstorm brewing as I make my way over to Zadie’s Oyster Room, 413 E. 12th St. between Avenue A and First Avenue, to meet Chef Mike (Campanile) and chef-owner Marco Canora.
The oyster room is warm, romantic, intimate yet friendly and welcoming — a good date-night spot. During the time I was there, Chef Mike, bartender/server Chris Maslowsk, and Marco personally greeted customers, mostly cultivated regulars and neighborhood folks who have the menu memorized and are looking forward to supper and watching the approaching rainstorm through the large glass windows.
I ask Marco about the history of the restaurant: he wanted to mimic old oyster bars from the turn of the century, and highlight oysters served every style, not just raw but cooked, steamed, fried, pickled, smoked, roasted and baked. Originally, he wanted to call the place Saddle Rock (after the East River oyster) but it was trademarked. Also under consideration was Zadie’s Oyster and Seaweed Room, but he settled on Zadie’s Oyster Room.
The two chefs spent a fair amount of time explaining the sustainability of oysters, the farming and care of them, and when to eat and enjoy oysters according to season. Chef Mike, who shucks an average of 3,000 oysters each week, explains “oysters are a gender-fluid food,” before launching into a detailed discussion about bivalve spawning and parthenogenesis. Both chefs are eager to share their knowledge and thoughtfully answer my questions.
This month marks the third anniversary for Zadie’s. How has the restaurant evolved since then? In a preview piece in the Times in 2016, Marco said that he almost called Zadie’s “an oyster and seaweed room.” How much does seaweed play a role in today’s recipes?
Marco Canora: My original hope was to have seaweed show up in every dish — we’ve turned that back of late. Turns out our guests don’t love seaweed as much as we do. We do however always have seaweed on hand and it is in a handful of dishes from the opening menu, my favorite being our seaweed-infused take on oysters Rockefeller.
Chef Mike Campanile: When I first got involved in Zadie’s, my philosophy was “how would an oyster open an oyster room?” Hence the emphasis on individuality, sustainability, versatility, environment consciousness, and genderqueer support. Also just treat each oyster dish with the upmost respect. Seaweed is always on my mind but it doesn’t always pair well with everything and it’s not an easy sell to the general public. Sometimes it’s easier to just add seaweed and not advertise it, let the customer try something new.
“Oyster” is in the name, but the menu features other items. Do you encounter diners who think you only serve the one item? For who that don’t eat oysters, what dishes do you recommend?
Canora: The focus is obviously on oysters but we have a section on our menu called “not oysters,” and there are plenty of options. The BLT during the warmer months is a must and I think our Caesar salad is a contender for best in class…
Campanile: Almost everything on the menu had some element of the sea in it, from the briny bottarga on the deviled egg to our take on the Caesar salad, where we don’t skimp out on the anchovies. The summer BLT and the spring cacio e pepe are our only nonfishy treats.
The space has transitioned from Terroir to Fifty Paces to Zadie’s. How have you been able to successfully navigate these revamps?
Canora: One of the benefits of such a small space is the ability to shake things up at will. Having the Hearth mothership next door has certainly helped our ability to navigate through these changes.
Campanile: It’s such a rare privilege to have a chef of such caliber allow you to pour so much of your own personality/queerness into such a wonderful little brick-and-mortar and allow it to grow and become successful.
You are partnered with the Billion Oyster Project. What can you tell people about their work?
Canora: Chef Mike has really been the point person here but I am hugely supportive. One of the ideas that drove Zadie’s was to harken back to turn of the century NYC when oysters were literally overflowing out of our waters and hundreds of oyster bars, oyster cellars, and oyster rooms were scattered all over the city. Billion Oyster Project has been successfully bringing those oysters back into our waters and that culture back into focus, and we couldn’t be happier to help.
Campanile: It’s one of the most rewarding and progressive charities I’ve ever worked with. They recycle all the shells we go through and use them to build and restore oyster reefs in the New York harbor to filter the water and rebuild an ecosystem. Oysters are basically going to save our planet, so keep eating oysters!
How would you describe the current state of the East Village dining scene? What draws you to the East Village as a chef and chef-owner and how does the neighborhood affect your food and drink decisions?
Canora: I used to live on Sixth Street back in the late 1990s and I have now been operating Hearth for more than 15 years — then and now I’ve thought the East Village has the most vibrant dining scene in all of New York. This certainly makes for a challenging and competitive landscape as an operator, but as a consumer there is no better place to eat than the East Village.
It’s difficult to articulate why I’ve always been drawn to the area, I think as a young punk it was the gritty, anti-establishment vibe that drew me in … and of all the neighborhoods in this ever-evolving city it still retains a small fraction of that. There’s nowhere else I’d rather have a stake in the ground.
Campanile: What I love about the East Village is that it’s a grimy, gritty, graffiti-covered protective bubble from the modern scenes. No, we don’t have gluten-free vegan cheeseburgers, or sleek iPad surfaces and lighting, and we don’t have to ever feel the pressure to do so. The East Village doesn’t follow trends, it’s too busy creating them. People who come here are going to get unpretentious, unapologetic, eccentric and queer food.
What’s next for Zadie’s?
Canora: That’s for Chef Mike to determine, though one thing’s for sure — we love what Zadie’s has become, so any changes will be food and beverage changes to the menu. Though [Hearth’s] Chef Luigi [Petrocelli] and I have often contemplated doing a once-a-month dinner series where we would serve one set meal with beverage pairings to a dozen or so guests.
Campanile: I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what Zadie’s and oysters can provide for the universe. Going back to the notion of “if an oyster opened an oyster room,” I’m going to continue being proactive and resourceful. We’re still in constant support of BOP and our local Long Island oyster farmers. We are also promoting oysters as a mental health superfood: The meat is so high in B-12 and omega fats, and the shells can be repurposed into bone meal to benefit the wellness of your plants.