BY ELENA MANCINI
Set foot in Fiorini, and a coat check attendant and hostess extend a warm welcome upon your arrival. Mood music playing in the background and a cheerful bar sits across a softly-lit dining room with classic decor and tables spaced apart, as a convivial host escorts you to your table. It is somewhere between then and inspecting the menu that it begins to hit you that not only are you free and clear of pretense, but you’ve also entered into another era of dining, one in which hospitality was as important as quality of ingredients and execution. No outrageous seating policies, no backless planks to sit on, no hidden charges embedded within the menu, and no cryptic language to decipher within the menu. You rapidly realize that things are actually as they seem and that it’s safe to relax and give yourself over to the menu and to the culinary talent of Lello Arpaia and his Executive Chef Xavier Quispilema.
Whether or not you’ll become aware of the hidden star-power behind Fiorini really depends upon whether you’ve done some advanced reading on the place and you have an eye for reading faces for kinship. Arpaia is the soft-spoken, gracious owner-chef of Fiorini and has owned a handful of successful restaurants in New York City including, Scarlatti, Lello, Bellini and his original family restaurant, La Tavernetta on Long Island, which had a four-decade run. He is also the proud father of two adult children who are also in the restaurant business: Dino Arpaia of Cellini in NYC and celebrity restaurateur and regular Iron Chef judge, Donatella Arpaia. While Arpaia’s discretion conceals his family’s stardom, his olive-toned countenance is an open-book about his photogenic progeny: Donatella bears a striking resemblance to him.
What follows is a review of some of the dishes that I’ve sampled there over the course of several visits, one of which included a chef’s tasting.
Polpo ai ferri – tenderized grilled octopus topped, lightly dressed in olive oil, caper berries, black olives, arugula leaves and a light drizzle of red onions. The octopus had a buttery smoothness and a very subtle smoky flavor. The preparation delivered all of the brightness and flavor rewards of a Mediterranean dish. The plump Sicilian caper berries were the crowning ingredient of this dish.
In line with the more traditional Italian appetizer route was the burrata. Delicate, creamy clouds of fresh burrata topped over grilled asparagus, prosciutto Parma and roasted peppers harmonize to make a tasty, satisfying starter that encourages indulgence in the generous basket of focaccia on the table.
Of the first courses sampled, my favorite was the Bucatini all’ Amatriciana. This classic Roman dish was prepared with compellingly al dente bucatini noodles, coated in a naturally sweet, tomato-based matriciana sauce with onions, pancetta and Pecorino cheese.
Next came the Risotto ai Frutti di Mare. A medley of crustaceans rested atop a smooth bed of Superfino Arborio rice. Prepared in a light pink sauce, the rice was creamy without sacrificing its toothsome integrity. The texture was perfect, the creaminess of the sauce was a tinge too rich.
Fish courses sampled included Sword Fish alla Livornese and pan seared diver scallops.
The sword fish was moist and meaty and combined well with the savory black olive, caper and deliciously fresh and full-bodied tomato sauce. In many ways, it reminded me of the seafood version of Puttanesca sauce.
The diver scallops were outstanding in freshness, execution and originality. Two large scallops seared medium-rare had a tantalizing sweetness. The simple lemon, white wine sauce allowed the flavor to shine through. A hint of kumquat in the sauce added an exotic touch that punctuated the flavor rewards of this wonderful dish.
Pan seared duck breast with Barlett poached pears in a dry vermouth sauce was an elegant and satisfying meat course. The duck was lean and juicy and the pears endowed the dish with texture and sweetness and the vermouth added a vapor of fragrance and acidic sweetness.
Dessert offerings are generous and lend themselves to sharing. During my visits I sampled a traditional Neapolitan Baba cake, filled with a light Mascarpone custard and served with a shot of rum. The cake was fresh and moist and I appreciated the fact that I could douse it with rum in accordance to my liking.
The zuccotto was a departure from the sort of which I was generally accustomed. I usually enjoyed it as a light sponge cake layered with gelato. Fiorini’s zuccotto was a light sponge cake layered with a dark chocolate mousse and served with a delightfully sweet and tart passion fruit sauce. Both readily lend themselves to sharing.
Plating is elegant, portions are sizable, and prices are in line with what you’d expect for upscale regional Italian food in Manhattan. Dinner entrees range from $18 – $45. Bar offerings include a range of seasonal cocktails very reasonably priced at $8 and an extensive Italian wine list.
An evening at Fiorini is the perfect choice for a quiet intimate dinner or a more formal occasion for those who value execution above trendiness.