BY ELENA MANCINI
Open Monday – Sunday
Happy Hour: half-off cocktails, Monday- Friday, 5-7pm
Tasting Menu: Ten courses for $50
Menu items a’ la carte: range from $8-$18
Less than two months after the closing of Il Matto, a restaurant that garnered a highly coveted two-star rating from the New York Times’ Sam Sifton, Matteo Boglione and his team are back with White and Church. Leaner, wiser and with a more pronounced New York-centric focus, White & Church is poised to deliver more comfortable surroundings, an accessible scaled down menu compared to its predecessor without dumbing-down or sacrificing experimental creativity.
Boglione became aware of his interest in preparing food when he was eight. The Florentine native attributes the discovery of his culinary passion to the Saturday afternoons he spent baking brownies and chocolate chip cookies with his American mother in Florence. “Watching something raw enter the oven and turn into something else fascinated me.” At fourteen, after completing middle school and an age in which Italian teenaged students are made to decide what professional path they wish to pursue, Boglione opted for hospitality school in Florence. In his lilted, Tuscan-inflected American English, he described himself as by no means an outstanding culinary student. In his words, his grades were not the best for sure, they were just average, but after his first kitchen stint one summer at age 14, while the majority of his non-culinary peers were lounging on the seaside, it became clear to Boglione and his mentors, that this was work that he was clearly cut out for, and not just for his drive and perseverance.
A knack, a genuine feeling for combining flavors, colors and textures, and what he calls “a light hand,” were characteristics that Boglione’s teachers and employers attributed to him early on in his career, and in fact as Boglione animatedly recounts–aspirating his “cees” and “tees” in true Florentine fashion–”my art teachers told my father that if I ever decided to give up cooking school, I should study art.” Boglione’s dishes in fact, reflect both artistic flair and an eye for composition. His plating is elegant and minimalistic, but in a way that is not austere. On the contrary, it asserts a touch of playfulness that exudes of buon gusto. And it bears stating here that when it comes to Boglione’s dishes, this buon gusto is by no means confined to the visual. The aesthetic appeal is stalwartly backed by culinary skill and a bold instinct for combining seemingly dissonant flavors in a way that titillates without assaulting the palate.
This comes through with a good number of dishes that I have thus far sampled at White & Church, but perhaps most prominently with his pecorino cheese creme brulee with red onion marmelade. More on this and other dishes below.
The conclusion of Boglione’s culinary training in Florence took the talented and highly-driven 19 year old to work in kitchens in the UK, Japan, Egypt, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Florence and back to New York, where Boglione’s cooking has stood out in trendy downtown restaurants such as Gradisca and Falai. During his tenure at Gradisca, Boglione hosted a lunch at the James Beard House.
Asked about his culinary influences, Boglione lights up and gushes about his mentor and inspiration, Neapolitan chef Daniele Pescatore, with whom Boglione has worked in kitchens in Italy and the U.S. Pescatore, chef and owner of the Michelin-rated Cenacolo del Pescatore in Florence, is a champion of creative cuisine: a concept that moved away from regional cuisine in favor of revisiting traditional Italian and Mediterranean dishes with a contemporary twist. Boglione shared warm anecdotes about Pescatore’s support and encouragement when the going got tough in Boglione’s early days and Pescatore’s renegade tendencies. When restaurant owners in Italy refused to pay or made conditions miserable, Pescatore would flip off the owner and walk off the job with his whole brigade. A member of the brigade, Boglione recalls how the entire team would get picked up elsewhere in under one week’s time. In addition to the person, Boglione is also very fond of Pescatore’s creative cuisine concepts and expresses them most obviously at White & Church with his Carbonara done two ways, which is a decadently delicious dish composed of two versions of pasta carbonara: one traditional and the other an updated adaptation. Both versions are served side-by-side in matching square bowls on a platter. Both satisfying and respectful of the distinctive pecorino, egg, bacon character profile of the dish. However, the newer iteration of the dish, made with agnellotti, filled with egg yolk and topped with crisp pancetta crumbs delivered an element of intrigue and excitement especially because of the textures that were presented in this new version.
Elaborating on this philosophy of updating traditional Italian recipes and winning flavor combinations, Boglione added that it is not about altering recipes for the sake of something different, but about breathing new life into them and reintroducing them in a new, updated, and sometimes deconstructed guise. Examples of this are with a lasagna that he likes to prepare by substituting the traditional broad noodle with crepes and by serving prosciutto e melone, a standard Italian cold appetizer, warm.
BOGLIONE AND NEW YORK:
This past decade, the restlessly creative Boglione has been busy chefing and restaurateuring primarily in New York. His perspective on New York is similar to that of many seasoned New Yorkers. The city is addictive, it offers endless possibilities, creative freedom and the opportunity to do what you want, but over time the demanding work rhythms and intense competition can really push you to the limit. “To be able to stick your head out in a city of 12 million people, that’s really something.” Boglione loves the fact that New York is a place in which people regularly reinvent themselves, embark upon new career paths and can still enjoy being taken seriously in their professions. Not so in Italy– at least not in the culinary world. Second or third career chefs struggle to be regarded in the same way as those who went through the rigors and rituals of apprenticeship during their youth. Boglione firmly rejects that mindset and argues that some of the finest food he enjoyed were by former accountants and lawyers. In New York, this freedom of opportunity and possibility to succeed is within reach, and it’s a very good thing. He has also come to appreciate the intense rhythms of chefing in New York. The quick pace of New York dining as opposed to traditional five course, four hour dinner, in traditional Italian fashion has become much more his speed. Asked what ingredients or items of Italian cuisine in New York, Boglione pauses and asserts that there is very little that is unavailable here. He’s genuinely impressed with the expanded array of Italian salumi and cheeses (He’s a big fan of Murray’s Cheese Shop) in New York over the past five to six years. When pressed, he points to certain cuts of lard, but apart from that, he holds that Italian fare in New York is very well represented and remarkably up to date. For all of these reasons, Boglione asserts that there’s no other place he’d rather chef than New York.
FUN PERSONAL DETAILS:
Asked about his favorite dish, Boglione coyly shared: “If I tell you, you’re not going to believe me, but my favorite dish in the world is peanut butter and jelly and marshmellow fluffs.” He’s a very good customer of Peanut Butter & Co. on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village.
His dream famous personality guest: Alain Ducasse
Dishes that he enjoys preparing for his relatives: shelled scallops and offal
Other ethnic cuisines he enjoys: Mexican, for sure, but not the hot foods and spices that burn in your mouth and kill all of the other flavors, and Chinese.
ON WHITE & CHURCH:
Muted Fellini film loops projected onto its earth-tone sparse walls of this high-ceilinged restaurant-bar and lounge on a historically characteristic Tribeca corner. Ambient music ranging from fusion tango to obscure retro European hits conspires with a winning Lux-Rustic design replete with saffron-and-burnt-sienna-hued draping, organic wood furnishings and stone-topped communal tables to create a downtown chic- relaxing atmosphere that is heightened by Boglione’s cooking and award-winning mixologist Cristina Bini’s original edible cocktail creations. Bini’s extensive cocktail list includes classic and innovative concoctions, which include vermouth soaked stone martinis, available in white stone (from Ligurian beaches) and black stone (from Mongolia) iterations and a wide array of nutritional cocktails containing vegetables, herbs and forest findings including bark and a variety of insects, including worms, scorpions, crickets and giant ants. The protein content of insects was a definite point of inspiration for Bini’s brave mixes. Bini, also a Florentine native and Boglione’s better half, shares Boglione’s strong artistic bent– in addition to working as an artist in an earlier incarnation–and is constantly in the process of experimenting with ingredients and creating new recipes, many of which complement Boglione’s menu.
THE MENU AND BOGLIONE’S DISHES:
For a full-throttle satisfying palatal treat, head straight for the exquisite tasting menu. This ten course meal is a representative cross-section of Boglione’s menu, and priced at $50 (not including alcohol) it’s one of the best deals in town.
For smaller appetites and those who prefer a la carte, the menu is highly accessible and presented in a way that departs from an organization around course categories and favors food- and flavor- category types. Hence the menu categories read: “fried,” “cold,” “hot,” and “sweet.”
Many a straightforward, appetite-whetting starter can be had in the fried section. The fried polenta and the zucchini blossoms are among my favorite. The polenta comes in lightly crusted bite-sized squares. A satisfying burst of flavor in this moist cake-like texture is beautifully carried by a rich and simple parmigiano fondue seasoning. The zucchini blossom comes whole, perfectly coated in a delicate light flour batter, filled with a light ricotta cream and sprinkled bold and briny with black salt and served with a side of hot marinara sauce. Boglione’s masterful technique and light-handed and minimalist flavoring heightens these simple foods to gourmet masterpieces. The same holds true for his signature artichoke croquettes. Six light, non-greasy orbs of minced artichoke are artfully plated with decadent dabs of fresh and yielding burrata and carmellized olives on a bed of saffron sauce.
The cold section features a range of appetizer-like foods born of the sea and soil alike. There are cheeses, cured meats and tuna tartare and octopus dishes, and it is this section that features the show-stopping pecorino creme brulee. A balsamic reduction coated carmelized creme brulee crust conceals a bold and complex savory custard-like creme. These compelling flavors and textures merge and contrast with a spoonful red onion marmalade that crowns the dish. This is a genius dish for its inventive mode of delivering simple and commonly enjoyed ingredients in a fashion that not only defies the mundane but also brings high flavor rewards.
The octopus and foie gras also forwards Boglione’s knack for delivering bold and sophisticated taste combinations. Butter-like tender grilled octopus is coupled with soft, earthy slices of Hudson Valley farm-raised foie gras and sprinkled with toothsome candy-like, carmellized black olives and a few ribbons of a basil pesto that add a quickening kick. The dish is elegant and hearty at once.
Tucked in the hot section of the menu, the pastas are superb. I just wish there were more of them. However pasta lovers will revel in the pastas represented in Boglione’s menu. The carbonara two ways mentioned above is a rustic delight. There is the fresh pasta ravioli filled with burrata cheese and coated in a decadent black truffle sauce, and more Southern-Italian inflected pasta dishes such as a sardine Sicilian style spaghetti and bavette with fresh tomatoes, arugula pesto and pecorino. The hot category also houses heartier entrees such as steak tagliata, skirt steak and a tuna filet served perfectly rare with fried artichokes and black olives.
There is a respectable regional Italian wine list with which to pair Boglione’s dishes and a good choice of $9-$12 wines by the glass, in addition to Bini’s classic and exotic cocktail list.
White & Church is a place to enjoy authentic, creative contemporary Italian cuisine in a casual and relaxing atmosphere at affordable prices. Its ambiance and trendy decor, plush lounge area, spacious bar and high ceilings evoke an ageless noir-era New York. Boglione’s cuisine, while stripped down from previous restaurant incarnations, shines beautifully along with all of the other winning elements of this Tribeca treasure.