BY ELENA MANCINI
142 West Houston St.
646-559-9192 / damarcellavillage.com/
The intimate subterranean space that houses Da Marcella serves to underscore the warmth and conviviality of this traditional Southern European taverna. In fact descending the few small steps that will lead you into this charming, dimly lit restaurant has the effect of entering a magic door–you will suddenly be swooped away from the scene and bustle of West Houston Street and feel serenaded by the prized traditions of Italian and Spanish hospitality, reflecting the cultural background of tavernero (taverna owner in Spanish), Manuel Moreno.
Moreno was born in Viareggio, Italy (northwestern Tuscany) to an Italian mother and a Spanish father. He moved to Spain with his family as a young boy, and grew up there in admiration of his mother, Marcella’s Italian cooking, but mostly for her generosity of spirit. Marcella contributed to the household income by preparing generous portions of food, which she sold inexpensively, or often donated to neighbors in financial distress. Da Marcella Taverna is Moreno’s tribute to her.
With a menu that features numerous “best hits” of Italian cuisine. Thus dishes such as Melanzane alla Parmigiana (Eggplant Parmigiana), Tagliatelle alla Bolognese (an undisputed must here!) and their heavenly polpette al sugo (meatballs in tomato sauce) optimally served in heat-preserving clay terrines, are prevalent on the menu–and justifiably so, given the superior execution of these simple, supremely satisfying dishes, prepared with fresh, quality ingredients. Having grown up with many of these dishes in both by transplanted Southern Italian household and during my extended stays in Italy, I also feel compelled to add that while many of these dishes are seen as humble and perhaps ubiquitous in New York City, successful execution of these is decidedly less so as there is great temptation to cut corners and opt for less expensive ingredient substitutes to boost profit margins. Thus, in such instances, a Bolognese sauce will not have benefited from the many hours of stewing that requires, nor the mixture of meats. Not so at Da Marcella. Its Bolognese stays as true as possible to mother Marcella’s original recipe and its deeply harmonized flavors can attest to that this is a recipe honed with love and devotion. It must also be noted that Da Marcella’s penchant for the classics does not crowd out more complex entrees on the menu, such as Braised Lamb Shank, roasted Scottish wild salmon and Barolo Braised Short Rib, which prove that Da Marcella is a contender in both genres.
True to the original concept of the taverna, which was meant to deliver homestyle cooking to neighborhood people , Da Marcella’s menu is not vast, but it offers a refreshingly loyal rendering of the concept of the taverna. What this means is that Da Marcella’s approach is that a deliciously satisfying meal can be had here at prices so affordable that they seem anachronistic for Manhattan–and that’s a great thing! Entree prices range $15-$19. There is a global wine list with by the glass offerings ranging from $7-$12. Fittingly, the mood is welcoming and convivial and thoroughly devoid of pretense and the staff is both friendly, yet on the ball. My only wish here is that they won’t change a thing!
Besides the Tagliatelle alla Bolognese (pictured above), below are some my favorite dishes at Da Marcella:
I never pass up the opportunity to enjoy an appetizer of grilled pulpo. Da Marcella’s enchantingly tender octopus, expertly grilled with optimal char and smokiness, reminded me why.
With scatterings of chunky, mildly salty Lampedusa capers, the delicate brininess and the pleasing textures of this salmon tartare make it a refreshing and satisfying appetizer.
When first-rate ingredients conspire with a flair for composition, it is a genuine thing of beauty! That is decidedly the case with this antipasto! The tender as Carpaccio prosciutto with subtle saltiness highlights the creamy delicate flavors of the burrata–a light drizzle of truffle oil ties it together elegantly.
This picture does not deceive. Prepared in long-stewed tomato sauce, these veal and pork meatballs are exceptional and I dare say that they compare to many a family recipe.
I am generally not attracted to lamb for its pungency and pronounced gaminess, I encountered neither in Da Marcella’s Braised Colorado Lamb Shank. It was off-the-bone tender and exquisitely prepared in a red wine reduction sauce. The creamy polenta was an excellent accompaniment to it.
Da Marcella offers a selection of classic Italian desserts including Tiramisu’ and pannacotta, sorbets and gelato affogato. These are all rewarding. However, the crown goes to its Ricotta Cheese Cake! It’s smooth, creamy, not overly sweet and suitable for sharing.