Welcome back to Staff Spotlight: a monthly series where we’re digging deeper into the minds behind the magic. Dennis Mullally has been the bar manager of OTTO Enoteca e Pizzeria since it opened. He took some time between the “good morning, honeys” and “what are we having today, gentlemen” to fill us in on the man behind the cool glasses.
Where are you from? Born in New York City, raised in all of the boroughs other than Staten Island.
How long have you been in NYC? I first moved into the city in about 1973 and always lived in this neighborhood (West Village). It’s one of those things that back then, even though New York City certainly wasn’t as safe or as clean, it was certainly much more affordable. Coming out of school I actually had no debts to pay because I went to Queens College, a four-year school, and back then it was free enrollment. My first year cost me seventy dollars plus the books I bought. They killed you on the books; they were a couple hundred and more than enrollment. I of course took the six-year program as I was working through school.
What was your plan out of college? Well I was supposed to teach high school history. I think I would have been okay at that but the thing was that I found out I had some skills working behind the bar. Unfortunately it paid me more money than teaching would have and the vacation time was better. Also, I wouldn’t get arrested for going home with whom I wanted to go home with!
When did you have your first drink? It was a can of Schaefer beer in 1961 when I was ten with my father and godfather. It wasn’t a taste I was immediately drawn to, kind of on the bitter side for a ten year old used to drinking Coca-Cola. I liked the idea of hanging out with the guys, though.
My dad was a charmer and a checker. He worked in the docks in New York and New Jersey from the time he was nineteen or so. When I was eleven or twelve, he says to me, “I get along with people, son. I can mix with people,” and I’m thinking, so what? Why does that matter? Until I grew up and realized that’s exactly what I do and that’s what I’m good at doing.
How did you get involved with Mario? When I ran the bar at a place called The Cub Room on Prince and Sullivan, Mario was still the chef at Pó. This was 1994. Our chef de cuisine was a friend of his and Mario would stop by with some of his staff to have some drinks. So, I met him before he and Joe opened Babbo. There was an ease to later figuring out the bar and working for him. The fortunate part for me is that he had seen me run a bar and he was comfortable with the feel of it and the way that I’d want to run his own bar. The biggest thing that he has allowed me to do is exactly that, just be me.
Favorite drink to make? I would say it’s one I call the “Bitter Wifey”, a bourbon based drink. It’s actually for my second wife, Cindy aka LuLu, because she likes bitter drinks. We laugh that she is a blonde, upper east side brat inside of a Korean woman’s body. There are times when people catch the name and think it’s funny so they order it. I also love my Sardinian Iced Tea.
What can you tell about someone from their drink order? Nothing. There are times I probably can tell something by the way they order. Manners for one thing, whether someone is paying attention or whether someone is just trying to impress their company by going to the bottom of the wine list and ordering the most expensive bottle. It’s sort of why I sell Hondas rather than a Lexus on the first pour of a drink to somebody. I’m not going to give someone a twenty-five dollar drink off the bat. We’ll go moderate and build up, like going on a date for the first time. You don’t want to talk yourself up too much then fall down in flames.
What do you serve Mario most? When he used to come see me at The Cub Room in the nineties it was a very cold, cheap bottle of white wine, which is exactly the way he would phrase it.
Now, it is pretty much set that when he comes in he’ll have an espresso or a macchiato if it’s during those times when he is having lunch or a conversation with people. Most of the time he will have a small portion of Mandarine Napoléon in one of those a week. He’ll have an Aperol Spritz in the afternoon if he’s talking to someone. Or if Emeril comes in, that’s the drink that they’re having.
Do you have regulars? I see people two times to five times a week. My Sunday day shift is sort of the epitome of that. I can tell you who is coming in and when they’re coming in. Seventy-five percent of the time I know someone by what they eat, what they order to drink and their first name. I don’t know where it comes from, that ability, but it generally surprises them.
There was a guy who owned a few bars down here who once told me that when you tend a bar, you tend it with eighty percent ears and about twenty percent eyes. I told him that I think he underestimates it and that you work ninety percent with your ears and only about ten with your eyes. There are times when someone will be talking to their friend and mention “I’m going to have..” and then you put it in front of them and they say how did you know? They think you’re amazing, but it’s simple. You pay attention to what you’re supposed to pay attention to and generally things work pretty okay.
Coolest person ever seated at the bar? I would say I’m not really that type whether they be an athlete or whether they be a personality. The fortunate part is that I’ve had a wide swath of people. Clooney is as normal a person at a bar as he appears to be onscreen. Redford, who is almost withdrawn, not introverted, is very content. I helped with a party once a long time ago and was told to have champagne for all of the guests, but a six pack of Budweiser for Newman because that’s what Newman drank.
Favorite family meal? I really like the roast chicken the boys in the back make.
Item on the OTTO menu you most recommend? For me it’s that Pane Frattau pizza with the egg, the pecorino, the tomato. But I jazz it up with chiles and prosciutto crudo, which after you work fourteen hours on Saturday is like a one stop caloric shocking.
What is it that you love about OTTO? We are a fancy wine bar pizzeria, but we are actually one of the best neighborhood bars in the city. I like that people talk about us in that way.
What have you learned from Mario over the years? He trusts his judgment and he follows through on that judgment. After we had been here for six months, I asked if he was satisfied. I appreciated that he let me do this the way I wanted to this, however I also knew that people had no problem telling him what they thought about my bar. So I just asked if he was happy. He got that little catlike smile, you know the look I’m talking about, and I said, “So you’re okay?” He just said, “Yeah.”
So giving responsibility to people and then when they follow through on that responsibility, letting them go along.