Here’s a “hometown boy makes good” story. Adam Baru, son of a local orthodontist, who has worked with some restaurant industry giants–Masaharu Morimoto and Danny Meyer–has returned home to open his own restaurant, Mani Osteria. “Mani” means “hands” in Italian, while “osteria” means what “bistro” means in French–a family-owned neighborhood eatery. Which is appropriate, because Baru’s parents, David and Lois, are hands-on helpers.
“The first couple of weeks, they were here every night,” he says. “If my dad wasn’t eating here, he was changing the light bulbs.” They’ve even lent their names to a menu item: D & L roast chicken, which Baru says is a tip of the hat to his mother’s Sunday dinners.
His parents, who, sure enough, could be found entertaining friends there that very Saturday night, might consider themselves lucky to get a table, because there was a line of people waiting to get in. Many retailers used to consider the stretch of Liberty between State and Main to be a fateful Bermuda Triangle, but Baru says that Google, Bar Louie, and Tomukun have changed that. “This has become a real foodie and beverage part of town.”
Baru, forty, graduated from Skidmore, worked a while in advertising and marketing in Chicago, then went through Cornell’s MBA program in hospitality. He managed high-profile restaurants for several years in Philadelphia and New York before returning here with a plan of his own.
“I’m absolutely not a chef, but I know how to find good chefs,” he says. “It’s a partnership you build.” The good chef he’s talking to these days is Arthur Cavaliere, whom Baru worked with in Philadelphia and brought here to create Mani’s menu. Cavaliere will eventually hand the reins to local chef Brendan McCall (Eve, Everyday Cook), and “McCall has risen to the occasion. The two of them have formed an unbelievable partnership,” says Baru.
Despite the informal connotations of the name, Mani Osteria is slick and urban looking, with a large bar and an open kitchen that showcases the wood-fired pizza oven. It was a huge undertaking for Baru who, with wife Lucia and young daughter Isabel, lived with his parents for six months during construction. The former furniture store was an empty box, but things actually moved fairly swiftly: “We looked at the space a year ago March, signed the lease last June.”
“The concept was that wood-fired pizza would be the cornerstone of the menu, then we realized that people might not want pizza all the time,” he says of the menu. Some of Baru’s personal favorites serve as a break from pizza: pickled tomatoes, mussels, charred octopus, calamari.
Not all the bugs are worked out yet. “We’re still working on pasta selection,” he says candidly. “All our pastas are made fresh every day. We’re trying to figure out the best way to present those dishes so people understand why they’re a little more expensive than a traditional bowl of pasta. There’s a lot of love that goes into making our pasta.”
Mani Osteria, 341 E. Liberty, 769-6700. Tues.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 4-11 p.m., Sun. 4-10 p.m. www.maniosteria.com