Lots of restaurants have a signature dish. Now an increasing number of high-end marquees (Eleven Madison Park, Aureole and Aquavit in Manhattan; Common Lot in Millburn; and Turtle and the Wolf in Montclair, to name just a few) also have a certain signature under their dishes: that of Union City-based ceramicist Jono Pandolfi.
Before you even flip a plate, the weighty, handmade, stoneware dishes will catch your eye with their creamy, often speckled glaze accented by dark matte edges and bottoms. And you might spot diners slipping samples into their bags. (Not a cool thing to do, BTW.)
“Some of the restaurants I work with pull their hair out because they are always having to reorder our small ramekins,” says Pandolfi with a laugh. “Maybe they’re getting thrown out accidentally, but I think people may be taking them as souvenirs.” With business burgeoning, Pandolfi, 40, recently more than doubled his studio space in the dilapidated former factory he’s called headquarters since relocating from Long Island City to New Jersey in 2008.
It’s a quick drive from the Hamilton Park row house in Jersey City where the Westchester-raised ceramicist lives with his wife, Erica Duecy—digital director at Architectural Digest—and their two young daughters.
Ambitious restaurateurs see tableware as a branding opportunity. “People have made comments about our plates,” says Bill Hendra, culinary director for Harvest Restaurant Group, which showcases Pandolfi’s wares at 3 West in Basking Ridge, Huntley Taverne in Summit and Grato in Morris Plains.
Pandolfi tableware can be spotted at Gramercy Tavern in New York, the Four Seasons in Orlando, April Bloomfield’s Tosca in San Francisco, and the new Canopy by Hilton in Reykjavik, Iceland. In 2015, Pandolfi inked a deal with Food52 to produce the website’s first dinnerware line. His online shop and bridal registry, jonopandolfi.com, has tripled business in the last year.
Pandolfi seems to be the flavor of the moment not just because his earthily elegant plates can make even a rutabaga look sexy. It’s also because his pieces are sturdy enough to take restaurant-caliber punishment. An engineering major before he switched to studio art at Skidmore, Pandolfi developed a 16-step process for making his pieces.
“We’ve blended the process that industrial pottery businesses use with the traditional hand-throwing process,” he says, giving a nod of appreciation to his staff of five. “It allows us to maintain the quality and character of a handmade product while producing higher, more consistent quality.
“I like stoneware,” he explains, “because it’s not fussy. I like the beauty of imperfections and want that to be an aspect of my work. My customers want something dark and earthy and different. Stoneware provides that. It is unique compared to all the white-porcelain dinnerware out there.”
Is it just a matter of time before Pandolfiware shows up at your favorite chain store? The answer is…it already has. The guy, in fact, made his first retail sale to Crate and Barrel in 2003. He still designs a line for them called Studio, though the product is made in China. Anthropologie carried his teapots in 2010. He also works with Calvin Klein Collection.
But after landing his first big restaurant order in 2011 from Nomad in Manhattan, Pandolfi found his focus. “That deal made all of this possible,” he says. “I love working directly with restaurants. There’s no middleman. They pay you on time. Chefs see me as a peer, a collaborator. They’re good people.” And they recognize that Pandolfi’s work makes their work look its best.