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After 20 Years Under One Chef, Peasant Is Changing Hands

At the end of the month, the chef Frank DeCarlo will exchange his kitchen clogs for oxblood Dr. Martens street boots, wipe down his station and walk out of Peasant, the NoLIta restaurant he has owned for 20 years, for the last time.

That’s the bad news: Peasant is a beloved restaurant, well ahead of its time in its casual simplicity and cooking over an open fire. With a warm interior and straightforward Italian menu, it has become a favorite of famous chefs and neighbors alike.

But here’s the good news: The chef and restaurateur Marc Forgione, whose namesake restaurant has served contemporary food since 2008, is buying Peasant. Although the menu will slowly change, Peasant will keep its name and its basic, straight-from-the-hearth style.

“It’s out of respect for what they’ve built,” said Mr. Forgione, 40, the son of the pioneering New American chef Larry Forgione. “I just couldn’t imagine shutting it down and changing the sign. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Mr. DeCarlo, 60, plans to travel, spend time at his second home on Shelter Island and keep running his restaurant Barba Bianca in Greenport, N.Y., which opened in 2017, and Bacaro, on the Lower East Side, which opened in 2007.

“For 20 years, we’ve had a really good run,” he said. “But it’s time for me to do something new.”

Until then, Mr. DeCarlo, who has worked the line almost every night at Peasant for two decades, has to help his staff prepare for his absence. He has to take down a web of motorcycle and classic-rock photographs that decorate the office he shares with his wife, Dulcinea Benson, 49, the general manager and sommelier. He wants to help his successor learn the ropes.

“I’ll show you where I get those razor clams,” Mr. DeCarlo said to Mr. Forgione as they strolled through Chinatown before service one recent afternoon.

They crossed the street diagonally, dodging skateboarders filming videos and shoppers haggling with street vendors selling overstock produce. Lights flickered over the stalls, powered by electricity from thick cables above.

“In here,” Mr. DeCarlo said, ducking through a doorway cut into the base of the Manhattan Bridge.

The two chefs poked at a bundle of clams. Later that night, Mr. DeCarlo would serve them with lemon, white wine, bread crumbs and parsley, an appetizer crackling in ceramic dishes.

“I trust these guys,” he said, nodding to the fishmongers. “Everything here is fresh.”

As Mr. Forgione eases into his new role, both chefs want to keep the soul of Peasant intact. Most of the staff have been there for years, some since the beginning, a rarity in the churn of New York restaurants. The sous-chef, Olivier Pillard, even helped Mr. DeCarlo pour the cement for the concrete floor. He will be there, stewarding the kitchen, after Mr. DeCarlo leaves.

Every day, suckling pig is roasted for hours, then served pulled, with a rib, over milk-braised fingerling potatoes. Many chefs consider the dish to be the heart of the menu.

“No way can I take them off the menu,” Mr. Forgione said.

“Sure,” Mr. DeCarlo added. “You’ll just do it differently, that’s all.”

When Mr. DeCarlo signed the lease for Peasant in 1999, the same week he married Ms. Benson, New York was in an age of complicated, fancy cooking.

He wanted none of that. “I wanted to do something original,” he said. “I didn’t want to just follow the trend.”

Instead, he envisioned a neighborhood restaurant, a place that felt like home. He designed and built the kitchen himself. And then, he started to cook.

“I don’t understand the chefs that don’t work in their own kitchens,” Mr. DeCarlo said. “If you go to see the Rolling Stones, you don’t want to see Keith Richards’s guitar tech onstage.”

In the days after the 9/11 attacks, when Lower Manhattan was shut down in a haze of smoke and shock, Peasant opened its doors. “We stayed open with just local people, walking around, happy to be alive,” Ms. Benson said, her voice suddenly thick. “For two hours, they were able to forget.”

Born in New Jersey and trained in Italy, Mr. DeCarlo is a bearded biker who stirs sauce with a cocked pinkie. As he rose through the ranks of New York kitchens, he became a chef’s chef (Daniel Boulud had his 50th birthday party at Peasant), a maverick with an impeccable palate and a reputation for rolling up his sleeves.

Although fire cooking is now in vogue, Ms. Benson laughed as she remembered investors’ walking through the restaurant during construction. When asked about the kitchen equipment, Mr. DeCarlo would just point to piles of bricks and broken pieces of stone.

“I didn’t invent cooking with fire,” Mr. DeCarlo said, shrugging. “People have been doing it for 10,000 years.”

Today, those bricks make up an open kitchen at the back of the restaurant. Stacks of wood line the entrance and the nooks of the kitchen — thick pieces that burn slow and long.

“He does what we’d all want to do: You light a fire, and put some animals on it,” Mr. Forgione said, watching Mr. DeCarlo prepare his station. “The last thing I want to do is mess this up.”

Mr. Forgione said that when he first ate at Peasant as a young chef, he thought: “This is the sexiest restaurant I’ve ever seen in my life.” When he opened Marc Forgione in 2008, he aimed for a dark, cozy look like Peasant’s. (Mr. Forgione won the Next Iron Chef in 2010.)

In 2020, he will open Davide, an Italian restaurant he plans to run with his father, in the former Spice Market in the meatpacking district.

The younger Mr. Forgione and Mr. DeCarlo got to know one another in 2017, when Mr. Forgione hosted an event at Peasant as part of the New York City Wine and Food Festival. Before the meal started, he gave a speech about his love for the restaurant.

Two months ago, remembering the speech, Mr. DeCarlo and Ms. Benson called him. If you want it, they said, you can have it.

“He’s coming from the same place,” Mr. DeCarlo said. “He’s perfect.”

Both serve meals that feel like special occasions. Both chefs are united in their reverence for by-touch, by-sight cooking. Both have long-term relationships with their staff and partners: Mr. Forgione will bring along Matthew Conway, the general manager and sommelier at Marc Forgione.

“It’s very important to me that the energy, the passion of this place keeps going,” Mr. Forgione said.

Last Friday afternoon, just as the pigs had started their slow turn over a bright wood fire, Mr. DeCarlo walked through the empty restaurant to the bar. A few minutes later, he came back with espressos he’d made for his chefs.

In the door frame between the front and back of the house, he sipped his coffee, looking out at the dining room. Two decades of memories were made in those rooms: anniversaries and birthdays, first dates and graduations. He says he’ll be back. Next time, though, he’ll get to put his feet up and enjoy what he built from the other side of the plate.

Peasant, 194 Elizabeth Street, peasantnyc.com.

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