Archive for the ‘Restaurant and Product Reviews’ Category


Guanciale at BuonItalia in Chelsea Market.

I lament the demise of the old-fashioned provolone-stinking Italian grocery store of my childhood. Such places certainly still exist on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, but as far as Manhattan goes, I don’t know. I can’t think of one. Faicco’s on Bleecker Street? DiPalo? Those are great shops, but not the all-encompassing, one-stop stink-bomb places my father used to bring us to for his “cold cuts,” where the sausages hung heavy and low and dripped on your head as you tried to wait patiently for someone to wait on you. Those where the days. There’s a place in Glen Cove, near where I grew up, called Razzano’s that’s still properly stinking, with tons of soppressata and caciocavallo hanging from the ceiling, the kind of place where you can pick up a board of rank salt cod and a jar of salty, rubbery lupini beans and walk out the door with a freshly made salami hero soaked with vinegar peppers.

BuonItalia, in the Chelsea Market, is a store I go to often. It is in many ways a great Italian food shop, though it’s one where much of the stuff is shrink-wrapped and thus odorless. It’s a strange sensation, seeing all that guanciale, bottarga, and pepato cheese and not being able to smell it. It’s not particularly romantic. In fact, the place can remind me of a medical supply house. But in their defense, they do carry a lot of hard-to-find items, stuff you’d never in a million years see at Razzano’s.

For starters they stock Setaro pasta from Naples (after Latini, my favorite), and they’re the only place I know that does. You can buy bright green pistachios di Bronte from Sicily, butter made with Parmigiano milk (amazingly rich), almond flour, chestnut flour, semolina flour, chickpea flour for making Sicilian panelle, Strega-filled chocolates, fish shaped-marzipan, orange-flower tea, Black Umbrian truffles, vincotto from Puglia, mostardo from Cremona, guanciale (the cured pork cheek indispensable for traditional pasta carbonara), bottarga di muggine (made from mullet roe), colatura di Alici (a pungent anchovy syrup from Campania), menaica anchovies, braised eel, porchetta, lardo flavored with rosemary, fresh Italian yeast, buffalo-milk ricotta from Naples and fresh stracciatella (both very fresh the three times I’ve bought them), Miscela d’Oro coffee, much cheaper than Illy and in my opinion every bit as good. They’ve got shrink-wrapped Italian dried beans galore with names such as verdolino, tuvalgiedda marrone, tabacchio, San Michele, panzaredda, nassieddu viola, ciuto, munachedda, and marucchedda. What the hell are all these beans? All that in addition to the expected olive oils, canned tomatoes, and vinegars.

Okay, the place may not smell like Razzano’s, but I have to admit it’s pretty amazing.

Bottarga di Muggine at BuonItalia

75 Ninth Avenue (in the Chelsea Market)
New York, New York 10011
(212) 633-9090

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Happy customers at Aroma’s bar.

Aroma is a fine bar and intimate caffé with a name that doesn’t sound as good in English as it does in Italian, even though it’s the same word. I suppose they could have done worse. They could have called it Smell, or Stink. Luckily the aroma when you walk through the door is a good one, all basil and sweet sea broth and pecorino and salumi and red wine. This is just what I’d be hoping for from the Southern Italian couple that opened this lovely little place in 2005.

The first thing I noticed the last time I took my seat at the bar was that everyone seemed to be regulars. That is a wonderful thing and exactly what I long for in a restaurant. So few places in New York have any neighborhood feeling to them these days, but at Aroma the customers know the bartender and the hostess. I heard a waitress say to two guys who were eating at the bar, “What did you do with yourselves last week when we were on vacation?” “Oh we got by, somehow.” That’s a nice thing to hear.

I love a place where I feel comfortable ordering a salad and a glass of wine at the bar, and Aroma, at first glance, looks like all bar. There are a few pretty tables at the doorway, under a big crystal chandelier, and a group of cozy tables in the back. But down a narrow, East Village stairway is what they call the Farmhouse room, a long communal table where you can hide away with a bowl of orecchietti with broccoli rabe pesto or a plate of their arancini, the Sicilian rice balls (not great diet food, but once in awhile you’ve gotta have them).

If you’d prefer to stick to your diet, there are plenty of healthy, good carb dishes here. I tried the calamari stuffed with shrimp and capers and fennel, which was tender and highly flavored. I also very much enjoyed the little warm stacked beet salad layered with gorgonzola. These are small dishes; you’d need two to make a meal, which is what I usually do at Aroma. They make a very good Caesar that includes a poached egg and a hefty hit of anchovy; it can be a full meal if you’re not starving. If you are starving, you might be happier with the monkfish and shrimp spiedini that comes with fregola, the Sardinian couscous-like pasta, and summer vegetables.

This is a place where care is put into every dish and the chef loves to cook (you’d think this would be automatic for someone who chooses cooking as a profession, but strangly, it’s not always the case). For instance, a black linguine with shrimp and calamari, something you might find on the menu at any number of Italian restaurants in New York, was fussed over, the pasta infused with a delicate fish broth laced with tomato, and the shrimp and calamari both cooked perfectly. This was not the rubbery, careless dish I’m more used to encountering. Aroma has a seasonal, always changing menu, another reason for me to keep going back. And if you’re not really hungry at all but just want to hang out with a glass of good Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and a bowl of olives, Aroma is a wonderful place to stop and chill.

36 East 4th Street (near Bowery)
New York. N.Y.
(212) 375-0100

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Chianti at Morandi.
Chianti at Morandi.

If you can handle big noise, Tuscany-by-way-of-Disneyland décor (featuring walls of Chianti basket bottles that they serve carafe wines in), and a rambunctious (and very tall) crowd (including the designer Betsey Johnson on my last visit, but she’s not so tall), Morandi, Keith McNally’s year-old restaurant in the West Village, is worth a trip, for its fresh, uncomplicated Italian cooking, with some very diet-friendly small dishes scattered throughout the menu. This is a big improvement on the establishment that formerly occupied the address, an always empty, accept for the owner and a few of his buddies, Russian-run “Italian” cafe. Whatever life was lurking in that creepy place was all under the surface. At Morandi, on the other hand, everything is on the table. (more…)

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