BY ELENA MANCINI
As with many traditional ethnic cultures, generations of Southern Italians have grown up both venerating and taking the homecooked meals prepared by their mothers and grandmothers for granted. Far from being blase’ about the dishes of his hometown of Potenza (located in the southern region of Basilicata, approx. one hour south of Naples) for granted, Executive Chef Luigi Iasilli transformed that veneration for the food he grew up with into a concept that would allow him to faithfully preserve and share the recipes of his childhood. This concept was realized in 2000 with Max, a cozy, low-key restaurant on the fringes of the East Village, when it was still a low rent neighborhood for Manhattan standards. Since then, much has changed, but not the driving principles behind the restaurant.
Max takes its name from a magazine that captivated Iasilli’s imagination as a young man. The stories and images of American life in the eighties featured in Max, had instilled themselves in Iasilli’s mind, and led him to pursue his own American dream in Manhattan. While Iasilli has opened other restaurants in Manhattan since this original Max, including another Max on Duane St. in Tribeca and a brief venture as with In Vino Wine Bar in 2004, he has no intention of jumping on the latest Manhattan restauranteur trend and transforming his sweet, affordable trattoria into a temple of haute Italian cuisine. For Iasilli, Max is about authenticity, staying true to his roots and serving food takes care of both his patrons wallets and their liver. Dinner entrees range from $ 9.95 – $14.95. It’s an old formula, but one that works and keeps everybody happy.
Casual and homey, Max brings Italian comfort food made from premiere quality imported ingredients to neighborhood folk, foodies and the diverse group of people that constitute its following over the years. Max has also been known to be a culinary oasis for celebrities seeking shelter from the limelight. Lady Gaga has gone on the record in Outraveler about Max being the best Italian restaurant in New York.
From its intimate rustic, candlelit interior, complete with chalkboard menu, exposed brick and unclothed tables to the welcoming presence of its hosts and serving staff, and the accessible menu, Max exudes the warmth of a Southern Italian home where perhaps mamma and nonna have tag-teamed all morning to fastidiously prepare each dish to each child’s specific taste and liking and shrug off any attention directed to their efforts with “Ahhh, what,… this? It was nothing.”
A meal at Max’s begins promptly with bread service– a basket of crusty Italian bread and a small bowl of salsetta, a cold savory sauce made from pureed fillet of tomato, garlic, olive oil and black olives for dipping. During my last visit, appetizers followed with a platter of Crostino Toscano a serving of Melanzane A Funghetto. The crostini were toasted rounds of Tuscan bread spread with a thin patina of chicken liver pate’. The pate’ was creamy and had a subtle gamy flavor. It was enough to awaken the appetite. However, it was the Melanzane A Funghetto, normally served as a contorno, or a side dish, that really got the appetite roaring.
This eggplant dish is one that I’ve watched both my Neapolitan mother and grandmother prepare countless times growing up, and dinner at Max’s was the first time that I’ve ever seen it on a menu. It’s composed of cubed, peeled Italian eggplants (cut the size of small mushrooms; hence funghetto), sauteed in tomato sauce garlic and basil, and topped with a generous coat of 18 month aged Parmiggiano Reggiano. The eggplants were perfectly seedless and not stringy and the tomato sauce was naturally sweet, balanced by a hint of acidity, and the texture was thick puree. the flavors melded together harmoniously and emerged boldly in their simplicity. Fresh, tender orbs of Mozzarella di Bufala supplied weekly by a small Italian dairy producer near the city of Salerno topped off the appetizer course. The mozzarelle were light and delicately spongy in texture and had the rich, velvety creaminess that is characteristic of genuine Bufala. A glass of corpulent De Leonardi Piano del Moro Aglianico estate complemented this delicious course.
While the menu features a full range of courses and a balance between meats, fish and vegetarian dishes, the pastas are the real showstoppers here. So much so that coming here without trying the pasta would be tantamount to traveling to New York for the first time without visiting Manhattan. Don’t forgo it. There are many to chose from and having tried sampled an array of them, it would be impossible to make a wrong choice here.
My personal pasta favorites are the Lasagne Fatte In Casa and the Fettucine al Sugo Toscano. The lasagne pose somewhat of a departure for me, as I typically prefer rapidly prepared pasta dishes with simple, pan-sauteed sauces to baked pasta dishes,. But Max’s lasagne made me wish time could stand still, and leave me to savor the delicious, supple flavors and textures of this consummate marriage of proteins and carbs dish just a little longer. As I consumed the last morsel of this generously portioned rich dish, I understood the accolades that other food critics had poured on this dish and why. The lasagne are prepared with fresh lasagna noodles made and supplied by Dolce Amore, a Brooklyn-based, family-run company that hails from Naples, mozzarella, minced beef, a thin layer of bechamel sauce, a hint of clove and the seductively flavorful tomato sauce made with organic peel tomatoes that Iasilli imports from Italy. The Fettucine al Sugo Toscano are also prepared with fresh noodles, cooked al dente with a thick, veal tomato ragu sauce that sticks to the fettucine. The meat flavors in the sauce add richness and depth to the tomato sauce. The gnocchi alla Sorrentino, made with gnocchi from Max’s kitchen is also a winning dish and a traditional Southern Italian crowdpleaser.
Though more marginally, since tomato sauce is king here, cream sauce pastas are also represented at Max’s. The special of the day that I sampled featured a delicious porcini ravioli with truffle cream sauce. While a completely different taste, this dish could go toe to toe with the ones mentioned above for ingredient quality, execution and flavor.
As far as entrees go, I particularly enjoyed the Filetto di Baccala al Forno. A thick, crusty slice of cod lightly seasoned with Mediteranean herbs served with a side of creamy mashed potatoes and mesclun salad. It’s an excellent departure from the pastas. If you are looking for a rich, wintry dish, try the polpettone. This rich tender roll of minced beef covered with tomato sauce is essentially a sumptuously moist oblong meatball. Served with a side of pancetta potato gratin, it will help you brave the elements of the Northern hemisphere while exalting your taste buds.
While it’s doubtful that you’ll have any room left for dessert, Max’s dessert card offers popular favorites including Tiramisu’, panna cotta, and creme brulee.
Max is a destination for those in search of comfort, affordability and a truly rewarding culinary experience. It also features an extensive list of Italian wines with a balanced selection from Northern and Southern Italy. Bottles range from the mid-twenty dollar range to one hundred and eighty dollars. By the glass, most wines are under ten dollars.
Reservations are strongly recommended. For the warmer months, reserve a table in Max’s attractive outdoor garden.