Sophisticated Regional Italian without the Gimmicks – Review of Fiorini

Interior of Fiorini

Lello Arpaia

209 E. 56th St.
Midtown East
212-208-0830 /fiorinirestaurantnyc.com/

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.

Antipasti -

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.

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Where the only way to say goodbye is arrivederci: Review of Pizza Roma

ELENA MANCINI

259 Bleecker Street (btwn. Cornelia St. & Morton St.)
West Village
212-924-1970 / pizza-roma.it

Pizza Roma - paying homage to its previous occupant, historic Zito's Bakery

New York City has been riding a gourmet pizza wave for a while now.  The popularity stock on artisinal pizza peaked  just as the housing bubble popped and while the housing market continues to straddle signs of hopefulness and teetering on the edge of kaboom, the pizza moment is perpetuated with vigor and in colorful and creative new guises.

Until recently, the main purveyors of artisinal pizza in New York have been pizzaioli, certified by Neapolitan pizza guilds. Keste‘, Motorino, Pizza Totale an pizza fresca are but a handful of places that boast this honorable gastronomic distinction and a slamming Pizza Margherita D.O.C. to boot. Until now, the only competition vying for the spotlight along with the Neapolitans had been coming from a new crop of plucky New York pizzaioli, showcasing New York style pizza as evidenced by popular spots like Paulie Gees and Torrisi’s. It’s a case of apples and pomegranates, but the latter are worthy contenders, just this same.

Pizza Margherita

Pizza Margherita

Pizza Roma’s authentic Roman-style “pizza al taglio” (pizza that is cut on request) brings an exciting alternative to the pizzascape. By the look of things alone, pizza al taglio resembles a home-style grandma square. Standard individual-sized squares are cut upon request with a sure-handed sliding motion of a pair of shears. At Pizza Roma, pizza is served at the counter, for those on the go, or in its charming and rustic dining room  tastefully adorned with paintings of brightly-hued Fiats by Pop artist, Monica Casali. When weather permits, their newly opened outdoor garden will also provide a pleasing setting for a relaxing meal. While this place offers a hip, laid-back, authentically Roman experience, replete with young, hip, fresh-off-the-boat sounding servers and a stand-up wine list. These pleasant perks aside accentuate the real attraction here which is  a savory, pizza made from high-quality ingredients at moderate-for-Manhattan-pricing  (starting at $13 for a medium-size). Individual dinner pizzas come in two sizes, medium or large-sized rectangles, served on wooden cutting boards. But it isn’t the shape or the look of the pizza, that makes it  unlike anything else that can be currently had in New York. It’s how it’s the science of how it’s made that makes the difference. Pizza Roma’s dough has a 96 hour fermentation period, that’s right: 4 day-aged dough. The result is that it makes for a much lighter, less yeastier-tasting dough and a strikingly more digestible slice of pizza. I can testify to this when during a recent weekend evening, after waiting 30 minutes for a table, I had a 10pm pizza Margherita followed by a walk and no trouble getting to sleep, which is typically an issue for me after dining late, especially if it’s pizza. The Margherita had the perfect texture and a good tomato to mozzarella ratio. The sauce was sweet, tasted natural and had a pleasing, mild tang. The mozzarella was tasty, mildly fragrant and properly melted without being overly runny. The crust was light and crisp, with moderate chewiness and was subtle blisters and chars which gave it an enjoyable smoky flavor.

 

Pizza Tartufina - Pizza with truffles and cheese

Pizza Tartufina - Pizza with truffles and cheese

My dining companion ordered the Pizza Tartufina. This was topped with large slices of glistening truffles and meaty oyster mushrooms. A feast of flavors on a well-executed crust!

Crostata alle Fragole - Strawberry Tart

Crostata di Fragole - Strawberry Tart

If the stomach can withstand it, order a slice of the crostata ($5) for dessert.  This light and crusty, fruit-preserve-topped tart  will further boost the experience of Italian home-style pleasures.

For appetizer, go for the charcuterie or a caprese. Many of the salads are made with iceberg lettuce. For smaller appetites, skip the foccaccia crisps and go straight for a rectangle of stuffed pizza. The crimes of double-carbing aside, the potato stuffed pizza is a delectable expenditure of calories.


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Refined Comfort Italian Wrapped in Value and Style – Review of Otto Enoteca Pizzeria

BY CAROLYN ONOFREY

Otto
1 5th Ave
212-995-9559/
ottopizzeria.com

A child of the Bastianich/Batali family, Otto is a restaurant that I keep coming back to again and again for its great food and value.

Antipasti Spread at Otto

Antipasti Spread at Otto

Walking in to Otto you are greeted by a wine bar modeled after an old train station with high-top tables to stand at and invited have a glass of wine while you are undoubtedly waiting for your table.  The wine list itself, will keep you busy while you are waiting for your name to come up on the large train schedule style board with its list of a seemingly endless selection of bottles, more than a hundred deep. [Read more...]