FAME A WEST BRIGHTON CHEF AND RESTAURATEUR RECASTS HIMSELF AS A SOCIAL MEDIA KITCHEN ICON
BY ERIK SCHONING PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO
In the era of social media and online reviews, it is often more difficult than ever for restaurants to stand out in an increasingly competitive market. But one restaurateur, Peter Macri of Panini Grill, which debuted in West Brighton ten years ago, is keenly harnessing the power of social media to spread the word about his home-style Italian dishes. With a skyrocketing online presence and a spike in business to boot, so far the results are undeniable.
Macri’s unexpected rise to online fame began when he started posting videos every three weeks to promote the restaurant’s rotating specials. “I always believed in social media,” said Macri, whose restaurant industry career began at only 11 years old at a neighborhood pizzeria. “So I said, how am I going to get my message across to people, to let them know that we’re more than just paninis? I started going on camera on social media to showcase my specials. I got positive feedback, so I posted once a week, then twice a week, then three times a week. I thought, ‘Wow, I need to do this every day.’”
Macri’s videos follow a straightforward formula: in the Panini Grill kitchen, during service, Macri crafts one of his many menu staples. To date, his most popular video showcases him whipping up the Neapolitan classic uova in purgatorio, or “eggs in purgatory,” a shakshouka-style dish of eggs poached in tomato sauce. Today the video has more than 16,000 likes and over 400,000 views on his Instagram page.
Macri asserts the success of his videos comes down to a simple fact: pictures of food are interesting, sure, but nothing beats a behind-the-scenes, in-the-kitchen experience watching a chef create culinary magic, from a Margherita pie to grilled calamari. And Macri is no stoic chef; the affable cuisine likes to have fun in his videos, cracking jokes and throwing in bits of his native Italian. “I was never camera shy,” he said. “I was always the one on camera at family parties. There’s no acting involved. This is the way I talk, this is the way I eat, this is the way I cook. I’m not the fanciest chef in the world; I lean very old school: delicious, simple, and authentic.”
The Panini Grill social media phenomenon has paid off in real ways: Macri’s Instagram has swelled from 6,000 to 28,000 followers in a single year, and he estimates a 20% uptick in business. He’s had to hire additional staff, even after an expansion of the restaurant space a couple of years ago. While Panini Grill is still very much a neighborhood restaurant, Macri has witnessed customers come in from all five boroughs and beyond, fans from as far afield as Montreal and Australia, who have made his restaurant a destination in their travels.
The menu at Panini Grill goes far beyond sandwiches, featuring pork chops, pizzas, homemade pasta, seafood, and home-style soups. A full suite of house-recipe pasta includes rigatoni Bolognese with a meaty pomodoro sauce, and spaghetti alla demonte loaded with shrimp, arugula, and fresh plum tomatoes and topped with a white wine sauce. Sophisticated mains span bistecca al ferro, hanger steak infused with rosemary butter and garlic; braciola di maiale, a juicy bone-in pork chop coated in a demi-glaze sauce and served with spicy cherry peppers, onions, and broccoli rabe; and melanzane parmigiana, traditional eggplant parmigiana with fresh mozzarella.
Macri is in the process of refining and honing his menu offerings to account for his growing business, but the chef knows it’s his neighborhood customers who put him on the map in the first place.
“Our regular customers actually love the growth,” he said. “We’re blessed to be in a beautiful community. We still serve the staple items they love. ”
Today, Macri is running far more than just a restaurant. He’s gotten into merchandise, selling clothing and keychains. He podcasts on YouTube and uploads daily videos to Instagram. But his social media success always comes back to the business, and as much as the videos have gone viral because of his own personality and brio, Panini Grill’s social media is still very much a company affair, filmed in the kitchen during business hours, with Macri tapping his cooks or servers to film him cooking or be his official taste testers.
Macri drops a slogan at the end of every video: “When you dine at Panini Grill, non ti preoccupare, tutto aposto,” the second half of translating roughly to, “Don’t worry, everything’s good.” It’s a riff on a classic Italian saying that speaks to the heart of the feel-good experience he’s created at Panini Grill. “Everyone in Italy, whenever you ask them how they’re doing, they always say tutto aposto,” Macri said. “So when I brainstormed a slogan, I thought what’s better than, ‘Everything is good?’”
538 Forest Avenue
718.981.2999 / paninigrillsi.com / @paninigrillsi