Dreaming Italian

May 26, 2011

In my dreams, sometimes, I walk down a New York sidestreet and find a simple, sunlit trattoria, the tables a bit rickety, the door open wide. The chef beckons me inside.  He sets bread, cheese, and salume on the table, picks up a plate and fills it with hand-made pasta topped with the simplest tomato sauce.  Music washes through the air. There is grilled meat, sautéed spinach, a splash of wine. One tiny cup of espresso. I go dancing out the door.

In real life I run in, breathless and a bit late, having reserved weeks ahead. The music is too loud, the chairs too hard, the tables too close together. Everything’s overdesigned. The food is too fancy and it costs too much. By evening’s end my throat is sore from shouting.  I walk out unsatisfied, once again.

There are hundreds of Italian restaurants in New York City, and while there are a few I truly love, most are deeply disappointing. Finding two swell newcomers in a single week? A small miracle.

I wasn’t expecting much from Manzo.  Everything at Eataly has been so heavily hyped that I’ve looked at the entire enterprise with a slightly jaundiced eye. The room’s not much, carved awkwardly out of Eataly’s giant space. On the other hand, there’s a straightforward simplicity that proclaims, quite loudly, that food is what matters here.

And the food is fantastic.  The Razza Piemontese is manly meat with a deep, seductive resonance.  Cured in tea and shaved into thin red slices, it comes raw, the flavors underlined with the pure green taste of fiddlehead ferns and the sweet crunch of apple. There are squares of fried sweetbreads too, soft as pudding, airy as clouds, and supple slices of tongue that almost melt off of your fork.

But it’s the pasta I most admire, particularly the tajarin, thin ribbons of pasta made only of egg yolk and flour that have their own unique heft.  Served almost naked, the juice of roasted meats ladled across the sturdy strands, this should not be missed. Filled pastas – agnolotti, ravioli and the like – are also superb.

Afterward there are grilled meats (including more of that Razza Piemontese), served with very little fuss, or a fish stew, a roasted squab. This is extremely fine food.

I didn’t expect much from Ciano either. What is Shea Gallante – the guy who travels with a Paco Jet, the man who created the excruciatingly twee Cru -  doing in this lovingly rustic room, with its roaring fire, its book-filled shelves, its golden light and comfortable seats?  This is a room you want to settle into, a room you want to stay in. 

And you won’t be unhappy when you do; the food is very fine.  Starters include delicate little spheres of shrimp that fairly float into your mouth. Arancini, the little saffron rice balls, have hearts of melting cheese.  Substantial meatballs made of fluffy veal float on a river of polenta.  And those still mourning for Cru will be delighted by translucent slices of raw fluke intertwined with grapes, chiles and cucumbers that glitter up at you like gorgeous pieces of jewelry.

Pastas may be ornate, but they’re lovely.  I especially like the rich intensity of the duck Bolognese, and the saffron tagliatelle with its scattering of crabmeat.  Nicely roasted meats (a chicken for two), a fine wine list and truly impressive desserts. A cup of espresso – and I'm doing a quick, happy dance.
As for the trattoria of my dreams, it does exist.  But it’s two hours north of North York, in Red Hook.  That’s Mercato – and another story, for another time.

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