“Well, I think after 26 years of owning a restaurant, it’s about time,” Donna Lennard says over Bluetooth from the car, as she turns onto Delancey Street. The owner of New York’s beloved Il Buco is on her drive from Lower Manhattan to her house in East Hampton, where she’s been sequestered throughout the pandemic with her son and cat, and fields calls from her chef (as well as dodging traffic) while discussing why she has decided to release a book, named for the restaurant, after so many years.
“The real question is why haven’t I done one before now?” Lennard says.
The Il Buco book is not just a collection of recipes but includes anecdotes, essays and, of course, beautiful photography that is indicative of the charms that have kept people coming back to the Bond Street restaurant year after year.
“I guess it’s the feeling,” Lennard says of what makes the restaurant special. “It’s a combination of the atmosphere that we created in that space with the natural feeling that that space had inherently when we walked inside.”
Il Buco was an artist’s space when Lennard walked in decades ago, after discovering it while driving down Bond Street and bringing her partner Alberto Avalle by the next day.
“This place just has this energy and this feeling,” Lennard says. “That is the number-one ingredient. Number two was just filling it with all these loved objects that we discovered and making it feel ours and very warm and inviting. And then the third piece is treating people from your heart, with the best ingredients you can source and doing it simply and honestly. I think you just create an authentic organic thing and it just feels good in there and things taste good. And they’re just honest and real and I think that’s really the secret of Il Buco.”
Lennard has been at work on the book for two years, and didn’t consider pausing the process due to the pandemic: if anything, it motivated her to get the recipes out so people can enjoy Il Buco from their own kitchens. The restaurant is back open, doing outdoor dining, which Lennard says has been a success, though the restaurant industry in New York still has a tough road ahead.
“Oh, boy. I mean, I think for all the restaurants, the future is uncertain. I don’t even know if it’s just for small independent restaurants, because I think in some sense, some of the smaller independent restaurants can do better than the bigger ones,” Lennard says. “In a time like this, it really gets down to what’s really important in your restaurant and what do you want to accomplish? And making sure you surround yourself with people who are really wanting to be doing what they’re doing with you and your brand, and giving them room to be creative with you and collaborate in order to find solutions to a time that’s really difficult, but also full of possibility and new opportunity.
“And I think seeing it that way, as the only way to get through this, [is important] — because if you just bemoan you get caught up in a negative spin instead of thinking ‘how do we use this to an advantage?’ We want to feed people. We want to get people back to feeling good, to be nurtured in a restaurant and feel good with their friends and their family, and restaurants are so important to our culture. How do we adapt to what’s in front of us that we can’t really control?
“And so you look at the pieces that you can control, or you be creative and find solutions as a group.”