BY ELENA MANCINI
You’d never guess it from its humble exterior on a nondescript, sundry-shop-populated block of Astoria, Queens, but this warm and cheerful, family-run trattoria reserves genuine gastronomic treats for both the lover of traditional Italian comfort dishes and the adventurous foodie. Thanks to the recommendation of a friend and fellow blogger, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing both sides of Ornella’s.
The menu bears the exciting distinction of featuring dishes from the Cilento region of Salerno, Italy–a region that does not get much air time on menus outside of Italy– from where Executive Chef and Owner Giuseppe Viterale and his wife and restaurant’s namesake, Ornella, hail. Thus, dishes like imbustata, a rich oven-baked dished consisting of envelope shaped pasta stuffed with roasted veal, chicken, mushrooms and mozzarella and homemade pastas made with buckwheat flour, chickpea flour and chestnut flour. These are simply wonderful, and Ornella’s is particularly adept at making these since Giuseppe’s father ran a flour mill in Rofrano, a town in the Salerno province of, Italy. That said, Italian-American classics, such as Chicken Scarpariello and Veal Parmigiana are also faithfully represented on the menu. Despite these seemingly clear culinary coordinates, many of the dishes served at Ornella’s can be hard to peg, regionally that is. This is because Giuseppe Viterale is a restless epicurean. He is continuously experimenting with ingredients and techniques, recombining flavors and even occasionally breaking some of the cardinal rules of Italian cooking. From speaking with him, I got the sense that he takes great pleasure in playing maverick in the kitchen, particularly when the results are gratifying.
One such instance is with his rendition of pasta carbonara pictured above. Here, Viterale adds Little Neck clams and Blue Mussels to a creamy and deliciously savory, pecorino-laced Carbornara sauce, breaking the Italian culinary taboo of combining fish with cheese. While I admire bold combinations, I had my reservations about this dish. I was happily surprised at how well the flavors harmonized. The clams and mussels lent a subtle briny fresh dimension to the earthy Carbonara. I doubt the dish would have worked with a heavier, oiler seafood , but with clams and mussels, it worked beautifully.
On with a tour of more atypical Italian dishes. Since I was in the company of some daring diners, Viterale had us sample some authentic dishes and delicacies from his hometown– happily, a number of these dishes could be worthy contenders for an episode of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel.
The meal started with something that I’d never even heard of before: sheep salad. It consisted of cool strips of marinated lamb, a side of arugula salad dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, and mozzarella burrata. I enjoyed both the aesthetic and flavor composition of this dish. The bold gaminess of the lamb combined with the bitterness of the arugula and the light, mild creaminess of the burrata made for an interesting and texture-rich assemble-your-own-bite experience.
The next couple of courses were pasta dishes. First came the Fettucine di Castagne, or fettucine made with chestnut flour. These handmade noodles had a tender, velvet-like texture and a sweet, nutty flavor that held up well against the other flavors with which it was combined. Topped with a light sauce made with olive oil, sauteed spinach, tomatoes and shrimp, the dish showcases an elegant balance of flavors and is very tasty as well.
The second pasta dish was Pasta al Latte, a dish that is traditionally eaten on the Catholic holiday of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption in Viterano’s home town of Rofrano. The method of preparing this dish is astoundingly simple and extremely unorthox for veteran pasta cookers: it is made of fresh pappardelle, or in any case a wide pasta noodle, boiled in milk instead of water. The milk then coagulates and forms a thick flavorful cream around the noodles. The pasta is then seasoned with grated pecorino and black pepper. It tasted delicious and almost decadent in its simplicity. While I didn’t get the story as to why it is that precisely this dish gets eaten on this religious holiday. I speculate that perhaps the milk, one of the base and central ingredients of the dish, stands for purity. But who knows, that’s just my guess. In any case, when I shared the story behind this dish with my mother, a born-and-bred Neapolitan, to see if she had any similar culinary reference points, since Naples is part of the same region as Salerno, she told me that she’d never heard of it prepared for the Assumption in her hometown, but she recalled from her youth that pasta al latte was a dish especially prepared for young children–without the black pepper, of course
The meat course was composed of lamb sweetbreads. It was presented with a generous side of homemade mashed potatoes and spinach sauteed in garlic and olive oil. I am generally not very fond of offal, but I enjoyed Ornella’s tender and juicy rendition of it and the truffle oil sauce mitigated any hint of gaminess.
Dessert was a real doozy. Viterale served us his last batch of sanguinaccio, Italian for pig blood pudding. While I’d never tried this dessert before, I’d been acquainted with it through my some of my Neapolitan relatives’ accounts, usually with a dollop of bravado about how they eat lamb brain or vixen and to highlight the culinary wimpiness of the subsequent, US-born generation that has either never been exposed or well-disposed toward eating such rustic delicacies. I’ll admit, I’d always been squeamish, yet curious about eating sanguinaccio, so after sampling so many enjoyable strange foods at Ornella’s, I leapt at the opportunity to sample it. I also appreciate the fact that this dessert adopts the principal of allowing no part of the slaughtered pig to go to waste. The texture was very creamy, and the dark chocolate, citrusy flavor was strong and not too sweet, but very dense. I could not taste the blood, but somehow I felt animal flavor notes in my nose. Perhaps it was psychological suggestion, but I must confess that it did interfere with my ability to enjoy it fully. I’d really be curious to see if I’d have had the same response, had I not known that it was sanguinaccio. All I can say for now is that conscious sanguinaccio consumption is not for everyone, but boy did I enjoy this riveting initiation into the unique culinary traditions of Salerno.
Based on my experience of the inspired dishes sampled at Ornella’s, the warm and hospitable ambiance, the prices–salads and appetizers are all under $10, pasta courses under $20 and entree courses in the $20 range– and commitment to fresh, quality ingredients, I’d heartily recommend Ornella’s for a laid back dinner among friends or an enjoyable family dinner.