TikTok foodie Danny Mondello – aka Meals by Cugine – sets the record straight on his authentic reviews: 'This isn't easy work'

·4 min read
His nearly two million followers know him as
His nearly two million followers know him as "Meals by Cugine" on TikTok and Instagram, but Danny Mondello says there's more to being a social media foodie than just numbers. (Photo: Danny Mondello; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Because food connects us all, Yahoo Life is serving up a heaping plateful of table talk with people who are passionate about what's on their menu in Deglazed, a series about food.

A few minutes listening to Danny Mondello, the mastermind behind the NYC-based TikTok and Instagram accounts @Meals_by_Cug, and there's no mistaking he's the real deal.

The Italian-food-obsessed former line cook from Staten Island maintains the same signature "cooler than thou" vibe as Scarface character Tony Montana while clearly having fun and not taking himself too seriously.

That pragmatic sensibility extends to his everyday eating habits: His favorite restaurant growing up was a neighborhood Italian restaurant called Nino's, where he'd head after playing basketball with friends. "It's still there and a very family-friendly outfit," Mondello tells Yahoo Life. "Now, we have five or six places on the island that I frequent."

His favorite these days is Eat Italian, where the menu is an exhaustive tour de force of antipasto, panini, pasta and pizza. For his own pie, Mondello keeps pizza toppings simple. "I usually go for a plain slice, but I will add pepperoni now and then," he says, "especially if they're those little pepperoni that curl up into cups when they're baked. There's something special about those."

Still, when he's feeling nostalgic, Mondello loves Nino's pizza bianca. "I love a white pie with just ricotta and white onions," he shares.

Crooner Frank Sinatra serves as both Mondello's cooking soundtrack and the person he would have most liked to have dinner with. "He's just iconic, you know?" he shares. "I bet he'd be a blast and have so many great stories to tell."

Mondello also loves just listening to the radio while behind the stove. "It feels old-fashioned now to listen to the radio, but it's just easy," he says. "You put on your favorite station and let it do the work for you."

Food celebs are everywhere nowadays, but Mondello says there are some common misconceptions about food influencers. He says what he does — running TikTok and Instagram accounts with nearly two million followers — isn't a piece of cake ... or slice of pizza.

"People always think it's easy," he says. "And maybe at one point it was easy when it was just a hobby. But when you become a full-time content creator, it's not as easy anymore. It's more than just eating a sandwich or cooking something on camera."

Mondello says maintaining his feeds and engaging his followers is a business: He's built a trustworthy team around him to keep it going and he's always thinking about the next way to make money from his social media persona.

Another misconception, according to Mondello, is that many think food influencers don't know much about food. "I used to be a line cook," he says. "I've worked in food all my life since I was 17."

"Some of my videos are more of a gimmick, though," he admits. "I love to perform and I love to make people laugh, so I'm always thinking about entertainment value along with what the content is going to be."

Mondello has partnered with Grubhub to provide free lunch to NYC-based users on May 17. (Photo: Grubhub)
Mondello has partnered with Grubhub to provide free lunch to NYC-based users on May 17. (Photo: Grubhub)

Mondello's newest partnership is with GrubHub — an initiative to encourage New Yorkers to take 30 minutes out of their day to have a real lunch away from their desks. According to a survey by the restaurant delivery mobile app, 70% of New Yorkers skip lunch because they're too busy during the workweek.

Grubhub and Mondello want to change that, offering $15 to everyone in New York City for lunch on May 17, redeemable in the app for thousands of local restaurants.

Since NYC plunged into the pandemic and restaurants were prevented from offering dine-in service for months on end due to shutdowns, mobile app ordering has become a lifeline for every location from the local pizza counter to Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park. "Grubhub has done a great job of no-contact delivery," says Mondello. "They've also done a great job of making sure orders are delivered quickly and the food is still hot when you get it: That's important when you have a limited amount of time for lunch."

While he spends most of his time with his family in Staten Island, a trip to Italy yielded Mondello's most memorable meal. "It was just spaghetti and clams," he says."It was so simple — maybe four or five ingredients — but very fresh. I think the environment you're eating in has a lot to do with a meal's impact."

Still, whether you're behind your desk, in front of the TV or around the dining table with friends and family, Mondello leaves no room for excuses: "If you're gonna eat, make it good," he says.

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