Perhaps Donna Lennard is right and the magic behind her Noho restaurant Il Buco stems from the “amazing energy” of the Bond Street space she stumbled on in 1994. How else to explain the restaurant’s mystical, cult-like following and then, late last year, the much-lauded opening of a baby Buco, Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria on nearby Great Jones Street? It’s true that Il Buco has had talented chefs, such as recently departed Ignacio Mattos, but it has never been a celebrity chef restaurant. Both restaurants start with top-shelf ingredients and serve delicious food, but the whole of the Il Buco experience is decidedly more than the sum of its parts.
A more likely explanation for the intense devotion of Il Buco fans is the creative energy generated when Lennard, a Duke- and NYU-educated filmmaker, teamed up with Umbrian-born Alberto Avalle in 1993 at the Tribeca restaurant Arqua. She was bartending, he was head waiter. “Alberto,” says Lennard, “is your super-Italian purist genius. He’s got a million great ideas a minute. He’s committed to food, to quality, and has a great aesthetic.”
The two were partners in life and in business, starting out by collecting antiques to sell in Italy. They soon realized that they desperately needed a place to store all the Americana they’d amassed. That’s when a set of fanciful hand-wrought light sculptures/chandeliers in artist Warren Muller’s studio on Bond Street caught Lennard’s eye. A few months later, the space was Lennard’s and Avalle’s — 2,000 square feet for $2,000 a month. They filled it with an expertly curated collection of their antiques and began sharing the occasional glass of wine and lunch with neighbors.
That led to a liquor license and eventually Il Buco, where they began to sell their own line of carefully sourced Italian products and brought in salumeria masters to train chefs in porchetta-making. Il Buco’s rustic elegance cast a spell first over its neighbors, then a raft of food critics, and finally all in-the-know downtown.
Opening Il Buco Alimentari e Vino, with its state-of-the-art in-house meat curing and baking operations, was a hugely ambitious gamble. Its big payoff in mostly rave reviews and a perpetually packed house, says Lennard, “has been like a dream.”
Lennard and Avalle split amicably in 2000 when Avalle returned to Italy to pursue other business interests (he now operates a restaurant in Foligno, near Assisi). Recently married to ski touring entrepreneur Luca Boniciolli and busy raising her seven-year-old son from another relationship, Lennard seems to have it all. She describes the secret to her success this way: “It’s about sticking to quality, doing what you love and what you believe in, not about coming up with an idea that you think people will like.” A lesson Avalle taught her, she says, is “Never be complacent. You gotta keep qualifying.”