John Villa has a reputation for being an accomplished chef who is also easy on the eyes. But Manhattanites who’ve seen the executive chef/co-owner of the new urban hot-spot, Pico, in the New York Times or Gourmet magazine may have noticed he always has a close companion at his side— his beloved Doberman Pinscher, Zeus. “They did a shoot for the Times with chefs as beefcakes and Zeus was in it with me,” says John. “He looks like a scary Doberman, but he’s not. I got him from a Doberman rescue and he’s like a son to us. He thinks he’s a lap dog.”
Zeus is just part of John’s large family of animals and humans. There is his wife, set decorator Regina Graves (who designed Pico’s interior), his 4-year-old daughter, Grace, and 9-month-old son, Jett, as well as cats, Tucker and Clarence, a multitude of fish and three horses (Booker, Pastina and Honey), who reside at the Villa’s country house in New Jersey. One-hundred-twenty-pound Zeus, however, is the biggest baby in the bunch. “When he’s in the bed with my wife and I, he’ll kick me out and I have to go sleep on the couch,” says John. “If I make him sleep on the floor, he’ll cry until I let him get onto the bed. He wants the attention—when I start cleaning the horses he starts crying. He’s a huge baby.”
Zeus does manage to be well-behaved while he waits for John and Regina to get off work, which is a good thing, since the hours of both a set designer and a chef are long ones. While on duty at Pico, John manages to dash home every four hours to check on Zeus, or else the Doberman visits the in-laws out on the farm where he has 20 acres all to himself. If Zeus seems a tiny bit spoiled, rest assured it’s just because John is an inveterate animal lover who considered becoming a vet just before he got his first job as a head chef in 1992. He was given his first dog by his brother, whom he followed into the restaurant business as a dishwasher at age 12. This led to running a restaurant and then to his studies at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York.
After stints at Judson Grill and the Boathouse Cafe (where Zeus was allowed to drop by the takeout area), John began work on his dream project that eventually became Pico. “Pico is the name of a Portuguese island out in the Atlantic Ocean. My partner’s (Mark Rakauskas) wife is from that island and my wife grew up in a neighborhood that is mostly Portuguese. I like it because I blend in other flavors from France and India. Most people think of Portuguese food as rice and lobster and its more diversified than that.” The partners traveled multiple times to Portugal and along the way, John found himself inspired by one particular dish he carried over to Pico. “There’s an area called Bairrada and all they serve is this one suckling pig — it’s the most amazing dish you’ve ever eaten. There’s a restaurant every other block and that’s all they have. It’s the one thing I do exactly the way that they did. They pair it with red champagne and we brought that over, too.”
The look of Pico, which opened in December 2000, is a combination of banquettes and chairs designed by Regina Graves, paired with Portuguese antiques from the 1600s. “People say it’s hip and sexy,” says John. He adds, “If you’ve been to Portugal it has the feel of Lisbon. It’s as authentic as we want it to be.” Needless to say, Zeus won’t be a patron of Pico — “people would go crazy,” recalls John of the Doberman’s Boathouse visits. “Although my wife would say, ‘the dog is cleaner than you!’ “ Instead, the nine-year-old Zeus has to settle for the occasional bone brought home from Pico’s kitchen. John assures us that Zeus is not hard to please when it comes to food; “He eats everything in sight. He ate a whole turkey off the counter. He’s eaten 40 chocolate chip cookies at once. He’s even eaten plastic and chicken bones. I’ll bring bones home for him, but I don’t cook him dinner.” One would assume John’s subtle blend of flavors might be lost on Zeus; but then, surely, even a dog would appreciate a little suckling pig.