One of the Country’s Most Acclaimed Chefs Is Coming to Cambridge

Mark Ladner, the Michelin-starred force behind Mario Batali’s former flagship Del Posto, is opening an Italian spot in Harvard Square.

Mark Ladner. / Photo courtesy

One of the country’s most acclaimed chefs in Italian cuisine is coming home.

Long before he was stacking (and stacking, and stacking) sheets of fresh pasta and Bolognese for his 100-layer lasagna, the iconic dish he perfected over 12 years at Del Posto, Mario Batali’s NYC flagship, chef Mark Ladner grew up in Belmont, Mass. and cut his teeth at Olives, the late Charlestown legend that put star restaurateur Todd English on the map.

Now Ladner, a Michelin star-earning chef himself, is heading to Harvard Square to open a pasta-, steak-, and Italian snacks-filled restaurant—tentatively named Bar Enza—in September. The project, which Ladner describes as an “Italian version of a brasserie,” is a partnership with Boston’s Lyons Group, the hospitality players behind slick spots like Scampo, Sonsie, and Rochambeau. It will inhabit the storied space inside the Charles Hotel that previously housed two other Italian spots: Jody Adams’ revered Rialto and Michael Pagliarini’s Benedetto, which recently got the boot.

How does it feel to inherit the address? After a long career that also earned him a James Beard award and rare four-star review from The New York Times, you might think Ladner has little to fear. Actually, though, there’s still at least some of the flop-sweat anxiety that comes when a headline act plays to the hometown crowd.

“Worse than failing in New York would be failing here,” Ladner says. “Especially with all the accolades, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure. The last thing I want to do is disappoint. I know there’s a lot of sophisticated diners in this town, and I can’t take anything for granted.”

In many respects, Bar Enza is the culmination of a career that actually started in Harvard Square, where a teenage Ladner got his first restaurant job in a pizza place. Of course, it was a very different scene in the ’80s: He fondly remembers passing all the spiky-haired punks who used to loiter in the “Pit,” seeing Grammy winner Tracy Chapman busking on the street as a then-Berklee student, and being scolded by Boston-born Leonard Nimoy when he accidentally crashed a shot while the Star Trek actor was in town filming a movie.

“That was a real life highlight,” Ladner says with a laugh.

On the food front, more importantly, the local highlight was when Ladner was in the kitchen at Olives, his first job out of Johnson & Wales’ culinary school. There he cooked alongside Barbara Lynch, Marc Orfaly, and other future Boston luminaries, all under the important influence of English—who was, before he became nearly as well known as a Vegas-loving party boy, an impressive chef and mentor. “He was such a gifted cook, and tremendously creative at a time when that wasn’t necessarily the driving force behind a lot of the cuisine in this country,” Ladner says.

After helping to open Mario Batali’s Babbo, Ladner launched his long, lauded run as executive chef at Del Posto, which was one of the most important fine-dining restaurants in the country. That, of course, was before multiple allegations of sexual assault led to Batali’s ignoble fall (and eventually Del Posto’s recent shuttering). Ladner left Del Posto a year before the reports surfaced to launch Pasta Flyer, a short-lived fast food project. Still, he can’t divorce himself from a professional period that defined so much of his career, even if the association is a lot more complicated than it used to be.

“It’s a weird thing,” Ladner says, when asked how he processes his experiences with Batali now. “Somebody that is 80 percent a super humanitarian and 20 percent a questionable figure—it’s hard to metabolize throwing away 80 percent good for 20 percent bad. Obviously, I don’t want to condone any behavior or anything like that. He was a real force for good the majority of the time, and then when we partied too much, maybe he wasn’t. It’s too bad, but it was a reckoning.”

Compared to public-facing fixtures like English and Batali, who both embraced the lights-camera-action that comes with being a celebrity chef, Ladner has kept a low profile for someone whose food is held in such high regard, preferring to “let the work speak for itself.” But Bar Enza will certainly be quite a stage for the toque, who is going for a “breezy, grand café vibe” with “different types of experiences” available in the spacious interior and patio. Think finger foods and cocktails at the bar, a main dining room replete with antipasto, pastas (including that famous lasagna), and crudo, as well as a “steakhouse component” featuring cuts of organic, grass-fed beef from a small Massachusetts cattle farm paired with veggies from the year-round farmer’s market on the plaza right outside the Charles Hotel.

In other words, somewhere between the highly elevated experience of Del Posto and Pasta Flyer’s flirtation with fast food, you’ll find Bar Enza.

“The swing of the pendulum is starting to balance out now that I’m 50,” Ladner says. Bar Enza will be a “decidedly adult restaurant, but not necessarily fine dining.” Rather, Ladner wants to create “an environment where people feel comfortable to come, gather, and be nourished with food.”

In fact, Ladner says that on a personal level, he’s never been as motivated by the fanfare of fancy restaurants as all those years at Del Posto might lead you to believe. He is more inspired, he says, by simpler fare cooked perfectly and with passion.

“It’s not about pomp and circumstance, it’s about putting food that’s good for your body in your pie-hole, and celebrating local agriculture within the general philosophy and ideology of Italian cuisine,” Ladner says. “That’s what I’ve focused an entire career on. It’s a little late for me to change now.”