The comfort and soul of homestyle Italian – Review of Da Marcella Taverna

BY ELENA MANCINI

142 West Houston St.
Greenwich Village
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.

Tagliatelle alla Bolognese

Tagliatelle alla Bolognese

 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:

Grilled Marinate Spanish Octopus with Fresh Caper Berries, Sundried Tomatoes and Arugula

Grilled Marinate Spanish Octopus with Fresh Caper Berries, Sundried Tomatoes and Arugula

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.

 Wild Salmon Avocado Tartare at Da Marcella

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.

Wild Salmon and Avocado Tartare

Burrata Crostone with Prosciutto San Daniele

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.

Chef Francesco's Meatballs

Chef Francesco’s Meatballs

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.

 

Braised Colorado Lamb Shank with Creamy Polenta

Braised Colorado Lamb Shank with Creamy Polenta

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.

Ricotta Cheese Cake

Ricotta Cheese Cake

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.

Da Marcella on Urbanspoon

 

 

 

A night at Circo with Chef Alfio Longo and Ceretto Wines

Circo
120 W 55th Street
Midtown West
212-265-6119 / circonyc.com/
 

Circo hosted an engaging Alba truffle dinner prepared by Circo’s executive chef, Alfio Longo.  A representative from Ceretto wines was also present with a well-paired wine for each of Chef Alfio’s courses.

The night started with passed canapes in Circo’s front bar area and a glass of Cerretto’s, very drinkable, Arneis Blange – a balanced, fruit forward, but not too sweet, white.  Circo’s public relations manager Jean Lee was a gracious host as was Circo’s maitre’d, Bruno – a long time member of the Maccioni family restaurant empire.
The small group of food bloggers and other food industry-types made our way over to the main dining room for dinner.  As we waited anxiously for our first course, a basket of white Alba truffles were passed around the table and dazzled us with their intoxicating scent and the sheer size of the truffles themselves.

A basketful of white Alba truffles!

A basketful of white Alba truffles!

Dinner began with a decadent frisee salad featuring a quail and foie gras stuffed puff pastry and a rich Perigourdine sauce.  The Asij, 2009 wine from Ceretto’s Barbaresco winery in North Western Italy was a fluid, spicy wine which both tamed and complemented the more emerging flavors of the salad.

 

Frisee salad

Frisee salad

A second, pasta course was served paying homage to the terrior of North Western Italy – highlighting both the porcini mushroom filling of the ravioli and the white truffles from Alba which were shaved on top.  Butternut squash dotted the plate in an elegant, yet attainable dish.  Strong tannins in Ceretto’s Bernardot, Barbaresco added to the earthy nature of the dish and was an appreciated nod to the featured ingredients – the Barbaresco winery and Alba just about 5 miles from each other in Italy!

 

Circo3

Porcini mushroom tortellini

As the small group of us chatted about everything from the world of food marketing to weddings and the New York City public school system; Chef Alfio’s menu continued to delight us.  His simple preparations, highlighting the fine ingredients used to assemble each dish were a joy to consume and while a meal rich with white truffle and foie gras could cross the line of pretention rather easily, Chef Alfio’s cooking exudes the humbleness of his own person.

The third course was a melt in your mouth, sous-vide beef cheek with kale and pureed pumpkin topped with a cured ham crisp (which you can also order from Circo’s fall dinner menu, $34).  The ruby colored Brunate Barolo, was hard pressed to stand up to the full-flavored beef cheek, but brought with it fine notes of white truffle which complemented the theme of the dinner and was a full, flavorful wine on its own.

 

Beef cheek with pureed pumpkin and kale

Beef cheek with pureed pumpkin and kale

 

‘Molten’ chocolate was poured over a chocolate sphere in an entertaining take on dessert and was a great way to end the meal, especially paired with the Moscato d’Asti, Vinaioli di Santo Stefano.  Notes of caramel and apple were perfect for the autumn night and made the coldest night of the year thus far, that much more bearable!

Circo on Urbanspoon

 

An Italian Culinary Experience in New York with Zonin and Circo

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

 

 International Culinary Center, SoHo

Chef Alfio Longo and Marco Maccioni

Chef Alfio Longo and Marco Maccioni


Casa Vinicola Zonin
hosted an inspiring dinner at the International Culinary Center in SoHo highlighting wine from a selection of their wineries with the acclaimed Circo restaurant, bringing a true taste of Italy to New York City.

 

Marco Maccioni represented Circo at the event, the Maccioni family’s tribute to the woman behind it all – Mrs. Egidiana Maccioni.  He told stories of growing up with a father in the restaurant business, doing fine Italian when no one else was and of his mother who did her best to keep a traditional Italian household in the midst of it all. The food served, embodied just that – the home grown nature of the Circo restaurant and the woman who continues to call all the shots there.  Zonin’s humble and versatile wines paired seamlessly with the down to earth fare.

Tuna salad rolled into a thinly sliced pork tenderloin

Tuna salad rolled into a thinly sliced pork tenderloin


A simple tuna salad rolled into a thinly sliced pork tenderloin was a surprisingly fresh start to the meal and was paired with an equally as refreshing, yet full bodied wine – Zonin’s Vermentino Calasole –  IGT Maremma 2011 vintage.  Chef Alfio Longo was a charming addition to the presentation as he showed how to prepare the dish as we all cleared our plates.

 

Pasta paccheri all anatra, zucca, funghi

Pasta paccheri all anatra, zucca, funghi

A presentation by the DelVerde Pasta Sommelier was next, his thick Italian accent making everything he said about the pasta making process that much more believable.  Delverde’s paccheri pasta stood front and center in the next dish served, creating a bed of pasta for the braised duck, butternut squash, and mushroom delicately laid on top.  The wine featured with this course was an amalgamation of grapes from two of Zonin’s estates – The Berengario Zonin, a cabernet sauvignon and merlot blend – the dry red paired well with the richness of the braised duck.

 

Zonin’s Chianti Classico, 2009 vintage stood up to the next dish of a slow cooked Italian style tripe with artichoke, mellowing the rich flavors of both ingredients.

 

Italian style tripe with artichoke

Italian style tripe with artichoke

While I’m sure we could have all stayed far into the night to listen to more of Mr. Maccioni’s childhood tales of smuggling white truffles and salumi through customs and into the United States, the night ended with a classic tiramisu and an interesting Rosato blend of Moscato Bianco and Pinot Noir grapes from Zonin’s Castello del Poggio winery.

 

Simplicity that Wows – Review of Giano & Upclose with Chef Matteo Niccoli and Paolo Rossi

BY ELENA MANCINI

Giano
126 East 7th. St.
East Village 
212-672-7300 / gianonyc.com/
CLOSED Mondays

Giano

In Janus pose- left-right: Wine Director, Paolo Rossi and Executive Chef, Matteo Niccoli

Five years onward from my first review of then newcomer Giano, and I can still clearly recall the joy in my discovery in the East Village. While there were scores of restaurants that billed themselves as contemporary Italian, even then in 2008, it was immediately clear to me that the level of cuisine and the funky, yet friendly vibe coupled with a compelling combination of a warm playfulness and tasteful casualness that is so distinctly Italian, were qualities that set this place apart. Below is an excerpt from my first review.

Giano presents an accomplished melding of style with culinary substance at utterly affordable prices. O.K. I’ll fess up because there’s no use in attempting to restrain myself, I’m in love with this fabulous East Village newcomer. It’s been two weeks since my first visit, but I find myself still rhapsodizing about the outstanding, inspired dishes, the casual, confident warmth of the place and the sheer all-around “expert-hand” feel of this restaurant. ” Click here for full 2008 review.

One half decade in, and the principles of Giano’s groovy dual-headed namesake, Janus, of remembering the past and looking to the future still guide the restaurant’s tone in menu, but in a manner that reinterprets its original concept in a simpler and more mature fashion: one that honors the present. Whereas the original menu was organized around two main categories: past and future, the current menu encompasses a balance of both, in the form of dishes that are either distinctly traditional or more contemporary, or in the way of revisiting the classics and innovating them with a hint of global flair or unconventional preparation. I learned this during an engaging and spirited conversation with Executive Chef Niccoli and his partner in ownership, Wine Director, Paolo Rossi. The two natives of Milan met in New York through a mutual friend and are the heart and soul of Giano. It became evident early on in our chat that the two not only work synergistically to make Giano a restaurant that delivers a high standard of Italian dining that is refined, innovative and affordable, but  that they’re also having a good deal of fun along the way.

Giano - Niccoli and Rossi in garden

Niccoli and Rossi bantering in the garden at Giano.

Matteo Niccoli, Executive Chef at Giano, NYC

Matteo Niccoli, Executive Chef at Giano, NYC

Born and raised in Milan, Chef Niccoli derailed his plans to pursue architecture studies in order to satisfy his wanderlust at 19. He traveled to London, where he landed his first significant restaurant job at an Italian restaurant at the Michelin-starred Carluccio. It was a decisively formative experience for him. In addition to hands-on learning, the opportunity also paid for his formal culinary education. Niccoli’s next stop was Vancouver, Canada, where he worked both in a cafeteria and in a furniture restoration shop–an experience that would benefit him years later when he and Rossi (formerly a structural engineer) played key roles in designing and building many of the fixtures in Giano, including pitching in to build their dramatically beautiful bar made of Sicilian sea salt coated with resin. In the early nineties, Niccoli moved to New York City and worked in numerous restaurants, including the East Village’s Cacio e Pepe, before embarking on his restaurateuring venture with Rossi. While the Milanese duo originally conceived of the restaurant to champion avant-garde style Italian cuisine and traditional Italian dishes, they quickly learned that their clientele found a strict division between the two categories confusing and intimidating, Niccoli and Rossi responded accordingly by simplifying their menu in a manner that presented masterfully done crowd-pleasing dishes, dishes that as Rossi put it, might be found in ten out of twenty Italian restaurants, but that would elicit an unadulterated “wow-effect” and create a need for more such pleasure. In agreement to present a menu that would not be partial to any one Italian region, but would draw on the strengths of many of them from North to South, Niccoli’s mission became dual one, a) to present simple, traditional dishes that soar above the rest for flavor and execution, and would  and b) to allow for elasticity within the menu for him to play and innovate with technique, ingredients and melding the old with the new, with taste being the number one criterion.

Niccoli draws inspiration from the seasons, his mood and his gastronomic curiosity. He enjoys eating omnivorously and exploring other cuisines as well as other chef’s creations. “Sometimes they can influence me or  spark my own creativity. I don’t need to reproduce the dish. I may not even want to, but something about it can inspire me.”

Niccoli’s culinary philosophy: “In constructing a strong menu, every dish must be excellent. Taste is the main principle, and then I like to combine textures. If I can, I also like to exaggerate sweet and saltiness. The chromatic aspect is also very important to me. Eating a plain dish is not as joyful as having a colorful dish that is aesthetically beautiful. Ultimately, I want people to fall in love with my dishes and I want to please my following.” He also enjoys allowing ingredients to be treated to deliver all of  the textures and sensations that they can.

On how his New York experience has influenced him as a chef: It has posed many challenges and opportunities for him. One of the challenges was that of presenting traditional Italian dishes that found a great deal of resonance among an American and Italian American-audience. In certain instances, Niccoli’s authentic Italian execution of these dishes proved to be at odds with these diners’ expectations and previous experiences of these dishes. The reason for this is the way in which many Italian dishes have migrated to the United States and the American restaurant table. They have evolved to reflect a more American palate or to privilege Southern Italian culinary practices. A clear example of this, Niccoli states, is lasagna. It is a dish that most diners recognize and have experienced, but perhaps not in the way in which it is prepared in Italy. Some are not aware that there are different regional adaptations of lasagna and that there renditions of it that involve bechamel and no red sauce. In the U.S. lasagna tends to be saucier and richer, while Niccoli’s rendition of it adheres to an authentically Italian preparation, which is lighter, compacted and not as saucy. Thus the challenge for Niccoli has been not only to introduce innovative aspects to Italian cuisine, but to also reintroduce traditional Italian dishes in a manner that reflects contemporary Italian cooking. Among the opportunities that this challenge has presented to him is that it allows him to break the rules, to play more and follow his whims. Thus, he’ll occasionally venture to use ingredients that are out of season, but available to him and propose a winter ingredient in summer. The gnocchi with four cheese sauce is a case in point. While presenting this decidedly winter dish would pose something akin to a culinary infraction in Italy, Niccoli offers it all year round at Giano. Why? Because it’s a dish that people love, is always in demand at Giano and because he can. “That’s why I love America!,” he exclaims.

He draws inspiration for such transgressions from the long lines at Big Gay Ice Cream in winter.  If they can eat ice cream in winter, why not take certain liberties with ingredients. He also enjoys the fact that he can veer beyond a purist approach to recipes here and enhance his dishes by incorporating ingredients from all over the globe.

Fun facts:

People he would love to cook for: Uma Thurman,  for whom he jokingly admitted to having a “secret crush” and Giada De Laurentiis because she would really appreciate his food, has a really nice personality, and most importantly is much liked by his young daughter.

When seeking to indulge himself, he looks to Japanese restaurants and ethnic cuisines other than Italian. When not cooking at Giano, he enjoys cooking for his family with ingredients that depart from the cuisine of his métier, such as tofu and quinoa to keep it interesting, healthy and sustainable.

Paolo Rossi, Wine Director and Co-Owner of Giano

Paolo Rossi, Wine Director and Co-Owner of Giano holding up a bottle of a 2010 Bettini Sassello

In addition to sharing a name with Italian soccer legend of the 1980s, who delivered Italy out a a 46 year World Cup victory drought in 1982 by scoring the decisive goals in the final match and achieving national hero status, Rossi’s activities as wine director reveal not only his skill for selecting inspired and at times daring pairings for Chef Niccoli’s creations, but also his talent at being a jovial host and unofficial people reader. He knows just when to interject a suggestion and has a sense for when the guest is seeking encouragement and guidance to exceed the boundaries of their established wine tastes, and when he or she is simply looking for a competent but familiar pairing.   The former industrial engineer came to New York City from Milan in the early 1990s. Always passionate about conviviality, he soon began moonlighting in restaurants here alongside his full-time engineering job. He enjoyed a long stint at Una Pizza Fresca, which is also where he made his critical decision to leave his day job, and commit himself to his wine education and full-time restaurateuring. Naturally outgoing with a cheeky sense of humor and well-matched bohemian flair, it is difficult to imagine Rossi, whose current vocation seems to coincide with his natural habitat, in a corporate day job. He sees his mission as wine director to introduce guests to wines they have never experienced before, and to honor his guests’ price point. In compiling his largely Italian list with select global wines, Rossi has factored in the shifted-down market, and makes it a priority to honor consumers’ price points. In the current economy, this point seems to be at the $30 – $50 bottle, and he carries an extensive list of wines at this point. Sardinian Cannonau ranks highly among his loves.

Fun Facts:

When he wishes to indulge himself, he reaches for anything structured and aged, good Brunellos and Barolos. He loves Amarone, but asserts that it its full enjoyment demands a good meal, as any true Italian would. When he’s not eating, he treats himself to good prosecco. Food-wise his guilty indulgence is pizza. He loves it any-which-way, and considers it a blessing of sorts that he does not work in a pizzeria.

 Highlights among Dishes Sampled during Tastings and Independent Visits:

Antipasti:

Giano - Crocchette

Crocchette di Tonno e Ricotta and Polenta e Funghi

Crocchette di tonno e ricotta (tuna and ricotta croquettes) are a delicious play on textures and an appetizing yet unlikely combination of ingredients for Italian cuisine since combining fish and cheese is a violation of a cardinal rule of Italian cooking heeded by chefs and home cooks alike. In this instance, it is a winning combination as the delicate flakes of tuna are harmoniously wedded to the lightness and subtlety of the ricotta and molded into soft orbs, coated in panko and ultimately fried to crisp perfection so that crunch punctuates every bite. Served on a bed of arugula drizzled with balsamic reduction, it delivers one of Niccoli’s signature texture triumphs.

Polenta e funghi (polenta with mushrooms) offers its own interesting juxtaposition of flavors and textures. Crisp strips of polenta prove to be a hearty and texturally rewarding vehicle for the deep, rich aromatic flavors of porcini and champignon.

The pastas:

A note about Giano’s pastas, they are all fresh and produced in house. Although Giano has a full menu and is strong all around, pastas reign supreme here. Coming to Giano and not tasting their pastas would be akin to traveling to Rome and not seeing the Colosseum. 

Giano - Gnocchi ai 4 formaggi

Gnocchi ai quattro formaggi

While I am an equal opportunity lover of expertly prepared pastas, I have never been a huge fan of four cheese gnocchi. Niccoli’s execution of this dish has altered my view by sheer virtue of wowing me. Delightfully tender and light-as-a-cloud gnocchi are coated in a sensuous warm, rich nutty four cheese sauce made of Fontina, Gorgonzola, Parmiggiano Reggiano and Taleggio. These distinct character cheeses conspire together to deliver sheer joy in the way of harmonies spiked with bold assertions, with the gorgonzola delivering with a welcome kick of sharpness.  Plated in a deep large bowl with a stripe of black pepper for dramatic effect, it’s not at all difficult to see why it is one of Giano’s most popular dishes and part of its year round menu.  It is also a perfect example of Niccoli’s taking a quintessentially classic dish that has been done to death and elevating it to a level of superlativeness that is not easily forgotten.

Tonarelli con colatura di alici

Tonnarelli con colatura di alici

The tonnarelli con colatura di alici (tonnarelli with anchovy juice) may sound like a challenging dish to some, myself included, despite the fact that I’m a fan of anchovies, had some reservations about it as in lesser hands there can be the potential risk of excessive saltiness or pasty fishiness. This was not at all the case with this original Chef Niccoli creation. The anchovy sauce served as an intriguingly Mediterranean seasoning to perfectly aldente tonarelli. Panko flakes heightened the texture effects.

Rigatoni con Fave e Pancetta

Rigatoni con Fave e Pancetta

Rigatoni with fava beans and pancetta is an enticing dish that brings together sweetness and saltiness with varying degrees of toothsome textures presented by the pancetta, fava beans and lined rigatoni. Mildly salty shreds of delicate ricotta salata allows all of the ingredients to elegantly cohere.

Giano - Bigoli

Bigoli al ragu’ d’agnello e noci tostate

The Bigoli al ragu’ di’agnello (bigoli with lamb ragu) is one of Niccoli’s newest creations. It draws its inspiration from peasant cooking in Medieval Veneto. Bigoli was a typical pasta noodle during this time in Veneto. It is a dense noodle, about a quarter of an inch thick in diameter, and serves as a base for a rich-stewed like sauce.  In this rendition, Chef Niccoli prepares it with a slow-cooked lamb ragu in a white wine reduction and a generous drizzling of chopped walnuts for added texture. It is a hearty meal that delivers flavor rewards and provides a culinary retreat from a cold winter day. Note when ordering bigoli requires a 24 minute cook time.

Entrees:

 

Baccala' alla livornese con polenta

Baccala’ alla livornese con polenta

Baccala’ alla livornese with polenta features thick fresh chunks of flaky baccala’ atop cripsy slabs of fried polenta sprinkled with salty capers Kalamata olives and sugary cherry tomatoes and a drizzling of olive oil. Simple yet refined, this tasty dish champions Mediterranean flavors and a fun contrast in textures and colors.

 

Filetto al balsamico con pancetta e cipolle

Filetto al balsamico con pancetta e cipolle

The filetto al balsamico con pancetta e cipolle (filet mignon with balsamic reduction and pancetta and onions) consists of a generous portion of filet mignon marinated in a bittersweet balsamic sauce. Prepared to preserve a mild char flavor, each bite is seductively tender and rich in flavor. Simple yet creative sides  serve to augment the multiple sensory pleasures of this dish. Braised onions yield their sweetness to the saltiness of crispy pancetta  and an artistic swirl of basil mashed potatoes deliver clean creamy sensations.  This satisfying and exciting dish was favorably paired with a glass of 2010  Tiburzi Santambra Montefalco, a red Umbrian varietal consisting primarily of San Giovese, Sagrantino and Merlot Cabarnet. 

Giano-Tiramisu

Tiramisu’

When indulging in dessert, I am not ordinarily one to order the classic tiramisù, but Chef Niccoli’s is fantastic. Nearly weightless in texture, it is deceptively rich in flavor while not being cloying sweet thanks to a perfect balance of mocha and chocolate.

Giano - Coppa al Cappuccino

Coppa al Cappuccino

The Coppa al Cappuccino is a recent Chef Niccoli creation. This tasty dessert consists of cappuccino, whipped ricotta and crushed wafers prepared semifreddo style with cinnamon and is best enjoyed during the warmer  months in Giano’s lovely garden.

 

Prices:

Appetizers and salad range well below the $15 range. 

Pastas range start at $13.00 and are well below the $20 mark.

Entrees are comfortably in the $20 zone.

A $21.95 prix fixe is available Tuesday-Thursday & Sunday and includes an appetizer and main course,
5:30-7:00 PM as part of their Happy Hour (1/2 price on select Italian wines by the glass)

Wine: A wide selection of Italian bottles starting in the high 30$ range through $300+.

A sensible by the glass selection of wines are in the $10 range.

In sum, if you want to experience refined, well-executed and unpretentious Italian cuisine in a lively atmosphere that won’t inflict any damage on your wallet– or are simply wondering what kind of place warrants such a long review–then Giano is your place!

Giano on Urbanspoon

Where Pizza Is Just a Slice of a Northern Italian Flavor Cornucopia – Review of Basil Brick Oven Pizza

BY ELENA MANCINI

28-17 Astoria Blvd.
Astoria
718-204-1205 / basilbrickoven.com/

Astorians are favorably served when it comes to solid brick oven pizza. Places like Tufino’s, Trattoria l’Incontro among a few others see honorably to that. However for those seeking a fine brick oven dining experience that also encompasses fine authentic regional dishes and does not entail any long term injuries on the wallet, Basil is just the place.

 

Basil

To the uninitiated, Basil Brick Oven Pizza is a place where one might expect to have a solid pizza dining experience. I was firmly disabused of this notion thanks to Bradley Hawks of Amuse Bouche and a very fun dinner that he organized for Astoria-based foodie community and beyond, several months ago. In fact the non-pizza items on the menu were so extensive that I was so full that I had to bow out before the pizzas even arrived.

Utterly wowed by Chef Daniele’s creations, I left knowing that I’d be making a return visit for the pizza. I made good on that this summer, and I wasn’t disappointed. Overwhelmed by the selection–the pizza menu alone has over 50 varieties of topping combinations, from the classical to the outlandish–I decided to go for the “Basil” pizza, since the herb lent it name to the restaurant.

The crust was crisp and well done. It did not have the char and tenderness that some Neapolitan pizzaioli pride themselves in, it was a solid crust and held up to the weight of the toppings very well. The basil topping consisted in the ingredients that comprise a traditional Genovese pesto sauce: basil, pine nuts, potatoes (always present in an authentic plate of spaghetti al pesto) olive oil, garlic and grated Parmigiano Reggiano coupled with generous, but not overwhelming slices of melted mozzarella. The fresh flavors and the  quality of the ingredients were emphasized by the first rate extra virgin olive oil drizzled upon the crust. The flavor was intense and added a little pinch to every bite.

Basil2

Sogliola al Forno

My dining companion ordered the Sogliola al Forno (filet of sole in white wine sauce, lemon, capers and black olives). Predictably lean and indisputably fresh, the sole was perfectly cooked and the black olives lent an interesting counter point to the subtle acidity of the  lemon-wine-caper sauce . The portion was generous and thoughtfully paired with white fingerling potatoes and grilled vegetables.

To the rest of Chef Daniele’s menu, after having sampled a wide swath of appetizers, salads, primi of pastas and risottos and a number of entrees and experiencing various levels of enjoyment and no disappointments, I will  limit myself to spotlighting my favorites here.

Chef Daniele is from Piedmont and takes great pride in showcasing ingredients typical of cuisine of the northern end of the Italian peninsula and featuring them in ways that best accentuate the distinctive characteristics of items such as speck, radicchio and gorgonzola.

 

Sliced Octopus Salad

Sliced Octopus Salad

A dish that scored the highest points for me for plating, presentation, originality and flavor is the sliced octopus salad. Thin strata of bound octopus, sliced horizontally are stacked tall and then tastefully garnished with fresh microgreens, slices of grape tomatoes and halved lemons. Lightly drizzled in olive oil, salt, pepper and green herbs it is a light fresh appetizer that is festive and pleasing in every way.

Vongole alla Basil

Vongole alla Basil

The Vongole alla Basil is a light and delectable appetizer. The dish features little neck clams sauteed with zucchini in a white wine broth with mint and garlic. Served with thin slices of oregano focaccia which is great both on its own or for sopping up the delicious broth.

Homemade Beef Meatballs

Homemade Beef Meatballs

 Also as satisfying as it is visual appealing are Chef Daniele’s Homemade Meatballs. The dense and hearty sphere of beef are elegantly coated in melted mozzarella and served atop a fresh red tomato sauce and shredded basil. 

Risotto con Radicchio, Speck e Mascarpone

Risotto con Radicchio, Speck e Mascarpone

The Risotto con Radicchio, Speck e Mascarpone is an outstanding dish that really highlights ingredients from Tirol and Piedmont. A toothsome, yet creamy Arborio rice flavored with the deep, rich aromatic flavors of porcini mushrooms, shreds of speck lend it a smoky saltiness and strips of radicchio bestow subtle notes of bitterness and texture. 

Basil Lasagna

Basil Lasagna

Chef Daniele’s Lasagna is another rewarding departure from the lasagna that is typically featured on menus here in the U.S., which are based on Southern Italian variations of lasagna, which is primarily comprised of lasagna noodles, ground beef, grated mozzarella and tomato sauce. The first distinguishing feature of Basil’s lasagna is that there is no trace of tomato sauce in them, save from the decorative streak that is placed on the side of the dish for chromatic effect. Basil’s lasagna rather consists of alternating layers of lasagna noodles, potato slices and pesto sauce. It is topped with a thick layer of melted mozzarella and is in addition to being filling, also delicious. While it may never displace red sauce lasagna for many, it is a genuine Italian culinary contender.

There’s a lot to love about Basil: Portions generous, prices are modest and range in the low $10s for salads and antipasti,  the $10-$15 range for pizzas,  from the  $15 or less to the low $20s (for risotti), most entrees are in the low $20 range.

There is also a nice selections of Italian wines which which to pair the dishes that are also available by the glass. A variety of Northern and Southern Italian as well as American desserts are available on the menu.

The decor is rustic and up-to-date with exposed brick walls and lantern-style chandeliers.

Service is cheerful and eager to please.

Basil is not a joyous addition to the rich and varied Astoria culinary landscape, but an authentic casual and contemporary Northern Italian restaurant, which truly fills a void in Queens.

Basil Brick Oven Pizza on Urbanspoon

 

 

 

A Friulian Culinary Experience in New York

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

The Astor Center
399 Lafayette Avenue

East Village

 

Casa Vinicola Zonin hosted a second Italian Culinary Experience in New York City featuring SD26, Delverde Pasta and Zonin’s own Tenuta Ca’Bolani winery last week.  Chef Matteo Bergamini from SD26, a native of Northern Italy himself, prepared a menu highlighting Zonin’s wines from the Friuli region known for its stunning whites.

Representatives from both Zonin and SD26 families were present, including owners Tony and Marisa May of SD26 (and the former San Domenico).  Mr. May talked about his 50 years in the restaurant business, the careful consideration that goes into each item on SD26’s menu, and even his personal food preferences – a quality pasta being an integral part of any pasta dish.  As a restaurant with one of the most impressive wine lists in New York City – all visible on a touch screen tablet – it was only natural that the SD26 and Zonin families came together to create a Friulian inspired culinary experience.

 

Zonin’s flagship prosecco was served upon arrival – an important part of any day, we learned, in Italy and was enjoyed alongside a simple cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto, sprinkled with a classic Friulian frico, or cheese crisp.

 

Steamed white asparagus with poached egg

Steamed white asparagus with poached egg

A decadent steamed white asparagus first course was topped with hollandaise and a poached egg, only to set the tone for a rich and hearty rest of our meal.  Zonin’s Pinot Grigio Superiore 2012 paired well with the dish, but was better standing on its own as a well balanced, fruity, fresh tasting wine.

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Chef Matteo and Tony May

Chef Matteo prepared a light, yet decadent, lemon risotto with periwinkles in front of us while Mr. May and Jelena Meisel of Zonin quipped about the use of butter and cheese in a risotto (our version was without).  Zonin’s Sauvignon “Aquilis” proved to be an interesting pairing with notes of sage and grapefruit cutting through the risotto and causing me to return for bite after bite. 

Wild boar ragu with pickled raisins and pine nuts

Wild boar ragu with pickled raisins and pine nuts

Our pasta course introduced the first Friulian red of the evening and with it the Delverde pasta boys who kept the women in the room more interested than they have ever been before in pasta.  Delverde’s artisanal pastas are imported from a small factory in Italy made with top quality ingredients.  Compared to other dried brands, Delverde’s slightly rough texture helps sauce stick to the pasta and a more pronounced yellow color comes from ingredients that are true to Italian pasta making – that being said, our wild boar ragu served with Delverde’s flagship pappardelle was stand out and also holds the spot for my favorite pairing of the night with the Tenuta Ca’Bolani winery’s Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso 2011.  The deep red wine tamed the acidic pasta sauce and complimented nicely the pickled raisins that garnished the ragu. 

Quail with black fig

Quail with black fig

Our last savory course, a roasted quail with black fig with a light chicory pesto was accented by a Refosco, the “Alturio” 2007, a full bodied, spicy red. 

For Dessert, the Brachetto – the only wine of the night from the Castello del Poggio Winery known for its sweeter wines – was slightly sweet, crisp, and a refreshing end to the meal only made better by an apple tortino that’d I’d love to enjoy again and again.

 

Once again Zonin and their partners hosted a lovely and informative night of fine Italian wine and food where almost, just almost I could close my eyes and transport myself out of New York City to the breezy plains of northeastern Italy.

An Italian culinary experience in New York – Review Italian Culinary Experiences Series

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

Zonin

The Italian Culinary Experience in New York

Casa Vincola Zonin hosted its first in a series of “Italian Culinary Experiences” in New York City last week at the Astor Center.  Zonin teamed up with Le Cirque to create a 6 course luncheon highlighting some of their finest Tuscan wines.  Although this event was meant to be an informative, educational experience, the importance of family in both the Zonin Wine House and the Le Cirque restaurant empire shone through loud and clear.  Representatives from each were present to talk about their business, their family, and their product.  Both family businesses have had much success and have grown into respective wine and restaurant giants while still presenting the feel of a small family run business through a hands-on approach.

 

Zonin is Italy’s largest privately held wine company, exporting to 109 countries.  Zonin has 7 distinct wineries across Italy and one in the United States in Barboursville, VA.  Each specializes in the production of different wines, exercising great care in understanding the land in each region to produce an effortless tasting wine.

Mauro Maccioni of Le Cirque and Chef Matteo Boglione did an amazing job with the menu for this event staying true to what they do best while at the same time highlighting the Zonin wines and prosecco.

 

First course – Pappa al pomodoro and fried zucchini flower

First course – Pappa al pomodoro and fried zucchini flower

 

Pasta – Osso Buco ragu featuring Delverde pasta

Pasta – Osso Buco ragu featuring Delverde pasta

The meal started with Zonin’s signature prosecco, Cuvee 1821 NV, and a stuffed, fried zucchini blossom. Both were light and crisp with a clean finish, the perfect way to start off the day.  An heirloom tomato and farro salad was next, followed by Delverde’s (truly) artisanal pappardelle with a rich osso bucco ragu.

Fish – Branzino with artichoke and fingerling potato

Fish – Branzino with artichoke and fingerling potato

Our fish course delighted with branzino garnished with fingerling potato and artichoke.  Zonin’s flagship wine for the Rocca di Montemassi winery, Rocca di Montemassi (2010), a merlot, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, syrah blend – my favorite wine of the day – held its own against the artichoke without overpowering the fish.

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Meat – Stuffed rabbit with black truffle

My favorite pairing, the stuff rabbit paired with Zonin’s Castello D’Albola Chianti – Classico Riserva (2006).  At risk of overly idyllic about the experience, the two melded perfectly with each other, blurring the line between solid and liquid, meat and grape, enhancing each other to their fullest potential.

A traditional Tuscan Carnival cake, Schiacciata alla Fiorentina, was served for dessert alongside a rich Vin Santo gelato and paired with Zonin’s own Vin Santo (2003).  This caramel colored wine stole the show with its maple and fig tasting notes and sweet caramel scent and could have been left on its own to end the day.
This “Italian Culinary Experience” in New York was great way to taste some new (to me) wine paired with stellar food and was an even better way to spend my Tuesday afternoon than the alternative (work).  I couldn’t help but to walk away with a sense of sentimentality after the event, listening to Mauro speak about growing up with his two brothers in the restaurant industry and soaking in the energy of these two successful family businesses, both of whom are passionate and fruitful in what they do.

 

Galli brings new meaning to brunch

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

Galli
45 Mercer Street
SoHo
212.966.9288/gallirestaurant.com

Galli

Grapefruit @ Galli

If you close your eyes you can almost imagine yourself in the swank SoHo apartment you don’t have – a wide open space with 20 foot floor to ceiling windows, bathed in the morning sun as you sit at your breakfast table leisurely sipping a cappuccino and enjoying a croissant… At least that’s what I envisioned when I was delivered my cappuccino and croissant at Galli – a restaurant who prides itself on a neighborhood atmosphere serving Italian comfort food.

Galli launched its Buon Giorno menu this year, just in time for the first glimpse of Spring.  A light cafe style menu comprised mostly of fruit, yogurt, and pastries.  As I sat enjoying the simplicity of my half grapefruit sprinkled with raw sugar, I looked around the dining room to see only a few tables occupied – those who did have people at them were couples with young babies.  Although I had admittedly never put much thought into where a young couple with a new baby went if they wanted to treat themselves to brunch, I was happy to see that it was at Galli.  A type of safe haven – a family place accented by photographs from the owners’, Steve Gallo (Brio Downtown) and Michael Forrest, own family albums.

 

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House-made granola with Greek yogurt and berries @ Galli

Breakfast continued with fresh berries, Greek yogurt, and granola – a light and healthy way to start the day.  Bistro tables at the front of the restaurant near the bar are the perfect place to enjoy the homemade granola and the people watching of Mercer Street – the back dining room; the perfect place to hide out and soak up the sun streaming in from the skylights.
I often seek out neighborhood type places where I can enjoy breakfast without being rushed and leave not feeling like I just consumed my body weight in bacon and eggs or indulged in the all-you-can-drink brunch, which seems to run so rampant these days, leaving nothing of my Sunday but a sleepy lump on the couch.  After Galli, I am ready to take on the city – run those errands I have been meaning to run for the past three weeks or take a long walk to enjoy the beauty of the city at the first signs of spring.

Galli on Urbanspoon

Home of Manhattan’s Best Banh Mi Sandwich – Review of Sao Mai

BY ELENA MANCINI

203 First Ave.
East Village
(212) 358-8880 / Sao Mai 

East of the East Village bustle and trendiness, this family-run East Village Vietnamese restaurant serves traditional Vietnamese fare and the best Banh Mi Sandwiches on the Manhattan side of the East River.

Vegetarian Bahn Mi

Available in six varieties including pho, sliced pork, grilled chicken and vegetarian, these sandwiches make a quick, nutritious, flavor-packed meal that’s easy on the wallet (priced between $6-$7). The Bahn Mi are prepared on baguettes are consistently fresh and crusty with a soft and chewy middle. Independent of the filling you choose, the kitchen always strikes the right balance between bread and ingredients. Their vegetarian Bahn Mi is among my favorite comfort-food lunches. Prepared on two warm halves of choice baguette, they’re stuffed with toothsome strands of sauteed bok choy, straw mushrooms, seedless cucumbers, shredded carrot and abundant swaths of cilantro, the sandwiches and seasoned with lemongrass,  sriracha mayonnaise, that provides a subtle and reverberating pitch of complex heat. In sum, it’s a light, filling lunch that delivers high-flavor rewards.

Pho’ Sao Mai

Front: Summer Rolls; Far: Spring Rolls

Lest one think Sao Mi is just about Bahn Mi, flavor mavens and fans of traditional Vietnamese fare will find other  sections of its menu will prove well worth exploring. The Pho Sao Mai will not disappoint. A flavorful broth, rich in tender strips of brisket, sprouts, rice noodles and a medley of herbs will consistently hit the spot. Adding appeal to  Sao Mi’s attractions is its steal of a lunch menu, which includes the choice of an appetizer, entree and a soft drink, all for $10. Sweetening things further,  both the Bahn Mi and the Pho are included in this deal!

Ga Gary – Chicken Curry

With a wide variety of vegetarian options on its menu, Sao Mai is also a smart choice for a low-key dinner that guarantees value, quality and flavor. Pity that wait staff has not yet mastered the walk-in dinner crowd on weekends. During these times, the  friendly service  can turn into a source of frustration for those who do not suffer extended waits and uneven food delivery times lightly.

Sao Mai on Urbanspoon

When in Queens, Dine Like the Romans: Review of Testaccio

BY ELENA MANCINI

47-30 Vernon Blvd.
Long Island City, Queens
718-937-2900 / testacciony.com

Bruschette Assortite at Testaccio, LIC

While there’s no shortage of Italian restaurants in NYC, the majority of them boil down to the cuisines of the northern or southern regions of the Italian peninsula, or the beloved dishes of the Italian-American variety that have become standard New York fare– a side of broccoli rabe with that chicken parm, anyone? Yet, restaurants that purvey the bold yet rustic dishes of the eternal city are indeed somewhat of a rarity in New York City. Manhattan represents with less than a handful of downtown restaurants: Lupa, Cacio e Pepe and the charming Quinto Quarto with its homage to offal. Among this fine company was the recently closed (and short-lived) Sora Lella, named after Elena Fabrizi, sister of the iconic Roman actor,  Aldo Fabrizi. Danny Meyer’s hit Gramercy restaurant, Maialino has also added culinary cache to the cuisine of Rome casting the spotlight on Rome’s beloved iterations of pork: porchetta and guanciale.

At Testaccio, a restaurant favorably situated at a stone’s throw away from the stunning Long Island City waterfront, a wide selection of typical Roman dishes populate the menu alongside dishes that conform to the broader Italian palate.

True to the Roman district after which  it is named–Testaccio in Rome is known for championing  restaurants that capture the traditional Roman dining experience–Testaccio menu showcases many of the standard dishes of Roman cuisine, including Carciofi alla Giudea and many of the dishes feature staple ingredients such as guanciale and Pecorino and Cacio cheeses and, Bucatini all’ Amatriciana, Coda alla Vaccinara (Roman oxtail stew) and  The decor at Testaccio is industrial contemporary with many warm and soothing touches including soaring ceilings, spacious seating with banquettes and mood lighting. Ambient music favors conversation and serves to drown out the din. A beautiful pizza oven adorns the center of the dining room like an altar. The restaurant is also equipped with a full service bar and a predominantly Italian and Roman wine list.

Ciccia al Caffe’ at Testaccio, LIC

During my last visit, my dining companion and I started with an order of the Bruschette Assortite ($15). Our savory gourmet toasts came with basil pesto, minced tomatoe and ricotta drizzled with olive oil, and were beautifully arranged to evoke a painter’s palette.

Our entrees of choice for that evening were the Ciccia al Caffe’ (espresso rubbed skirt steak) ($22) and the Salmone alla Senape (salmon with mustard cream) ($23).  A fan of incorporating espresso into main dishes, I opted for the Ciccia al Caffe’. The skirt steak was not as velvet-tender as skirt steak can be, but tender none the less and grilled to achieve just the right balance between smokiness and moisture on the inside. The espresso flavor was subtle and the flavor notes were released in the back part of the palate. A rich red wine reduction both enhanced and tied the flavors together favorably.  The ciccia was paired with cream of spinach and French Fries. The cream of spinach was a good and fresh iteration of an average side. The French Fries were hand cut, crisp and not greasy.

The Salmon alla Senape came elegantly plated with a large juicy chunk of salmon coated in a mustard sauce that bestowed the dense, meaty fish with a creamy and subtle tang. It was generously paired with roasted yellow squash.

As much as we wanted to order dessert, we opted to forgo it as we were satisfied with our generous and filling entrees. However, among the desserts that I’d highly recommend is the Torta di ricotta e visciole (ricotta pie with Roman sour cherries in syrup) ($6).

All in all, Testaccio is a sophisticated restaurant with a pleasing contemporary vibe and a broad menu and reasonably priced menu specializing on head-to-tail Roman cuisine.