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Archive for the ‘Restaurant and Product Reviews’ Category

grammatico
Maria Grammatico in her pastry shop, in Erice, Sicily.

In all of Italy, Sicily, for me, has the best food. It just makes sense to me all around—the ingredients, the palate, the preparation. I suppose being part Sicilian myself, I’m predisposed to favor Sicilian flavor, and maybe also to be infatuated with Louis Prima. But who really knows why we like what we like? Familiarity no doubt has something to do with fondness, but not everything. Sometimes you just fall in love. For instance, I love the flavor of aqvavit, the strong, caraway-flavored Norwegian booze, although I haven’t got a drop of Norwegian blood in me—and though, by the way, it tastes absolutely terrible with tomato sauce.

Sicilian food is for me a mix of the exotic and the familiar. I love its lows and its highs, from its plain grilled swordfish with lemon, or its raw sea urchins eaten straight from the boat, to its opulent timballi of meats and cheeses encased in sweet pastry, a legacy of an abusive aristocracy with French-trained chefs. I love its Arab touches—cinnamon, saffron, pomegranates,  couscous. I love its citrus and anchovies, and capers. I’m crazy about all its ultrasweet desserts made with honey and pistachios, and especially its works of art made with almond paste, molded into sacrificial lambs or eels or bunches of grapes, as fashioned by Maria Grammatico at her pastry shop in Erice (see the photo above, and if you’d like to know her story, a journey that takes her from convent kid to Sicilian pastry queen, pick up Bitter Almonds, a great little book by Mary Taylor Simeti and her, published in 2003).

New York hasn’t had many Sicilian restaurants that I can remember. I used to love Briscola, at Fourth Avenue and 9th Street, named after a Sicilian card game. They made great pasta con le sarde and a delicious escarole torta. I had several rambunctious, nero d’avola and cassata-soaked birthday parties at that place. They made the most superior ricotta gelato I have ever tasted, something I often craved at strange hours, occasionally making my way over to the restaurant just for it. Briscola repeatedly opened, closed, and reopened in slightly different forms for about ten years, finally packing up for good around 2000. I really miss its ricotta gelato

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Braised octopus at Cacio e Vino, in the East Village.

Over the last few months I’ve been stopping into Cacio e Vino, one of the zillion little Italian places in the East Village with more or less indistinguishable décor that rely on rows of wine bottles to try to set a mood. This one is different. It’s Sicilian, with a real Sicilian menu and Sicilian owners. And they have a wood-burning oven. I first wandered into the place months ago because its doorway was filled with the aroma of good, smoky pizza. I soon discovered that everything that comes out of its wood-burning oven is really good.

I wanted pizza, but I noticed on the menu that they offered other dough-based things too. There’s schiacciate, a flat bread sandwich that can be filled with all sorts of stuff. I decided on a cunzato, filled with anchovies, primo sale (a young pecorino), and oregano. It was beautiful, with thin, crisp, wood-scented bread and oozing cheese. My friend had a Norma, with eggplant, tomato, and aged pecorino. As good as the schiacciate sandwiches are, nothing is quite as impressive as the farciti, a Sicilian version of calzone. Cacio e Vino makes one that looks like a big crab or a gigantic croissant.

On another visit to the little restaurant I ordered a farcito with potatoes, onions, and sausage, and my sister had the mozzarella, anchovy, and onion version. These are not at all like the usual overstuffed Neapolitan-type calzones that can be so densely packed with ricotta and mozzarella that one or two bites and you’re defeated. The farciti are not solid. They have air inside. They look huge but in fact are quite delicate.

The pastas at Cacio e Vino cover just about all the Sicilian favorites. I’ve tried spaghetti cacio e piselli, with pecorino, black pepper, and green peas. It was simple but flavor-packed, despite its few ingredients. Anelletti, the Sicilian ring pasta, tossed with a beef and eggplant ragù, came closed up in pastry and baked in the pizza oven, very Il Gattopardo. Gnocchi al baccala, with salt cod, was salty but enticing, with its mix of strong fish and very light, fluffy gnocchi. Busiate, a kind of thick spaghetti, tossed with a traditional Trapanese pesto made from almonds, basil and tomatoes, was really lovely and is hard to find in New York. The only pasta I wasn’t completely crazy about was their version of bucatini con le sarde. All the flavors were in place—the sardines, the saffron, the fennel, the raisins and pine nuts—but the sauce was heavy with wet, mushy breadcrumbs. I’ve had it made that way in Sicily, so I suppose it’s a traditional rendition, but I prefer a chunkier texture.

First-course standouts include a rather sweet but very appealing caponata, the agro dolce eggplant appetizer, with a side of panelle, Sicily’s version of socca, the Niçoise chickpea-flour pancake. Braised octopus with a marinara sauce comes with garlic bruschetta. This simple dish has good, direct flavor. The sarde a beccafico, stuffed sardines, a real Sicilian classic, could have been fresher the night I ordered it. I think restaurants in general need to keep a more trained nose on their sardines, which go off quickly. Arancini, those Sicilian saffron-flavored, ragù-stuffed, fried rice balls, are on the menu. I love those things when they’re good. I have yet to try Cacio e Vino’s version, but I’ll be back for it soon I’m sure.

It just occurred to me, I’ve been to Cacio e Vino about half a dozen times so far, and I have yet to order a main course. I can’t seem to get my head out of their pizza oven. Maybe next time I’ll order their baccala with lemon risotto cake. Sounds promising.

I did try the homemade cassata, a cassatina really, since it was thin and not elaborately decorated the way  full-blown cakes tend to be. All the flavors were there, the green-tinted almond pasta, the ricotta cream, the fresh little sponge cake. I was very happy to find it house-made and made well.

The wine list is mostly Sicilian, small but good. I love the house rosato, a rosé wine made from Sicily’s famous red wine grape Nero d’Avola. It’s wonderful with the grilled octopus, fennel and orange salad. Check it out.

Cacio e Vino
80 Second Avenue (between 4th and 5th Streets)
New York, N.Y.
(212) 228-3269

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The amazing art at Ristorante Volare on West 4th Street.

About a dozen times in the last year I’ve either called Dell’anima to make a reservation (5 p.m. or 11 p.m. offered) or walked by thinking I could just slip in, only to be disgusted by the pushing, the crowding, and the noise level at that new Italian restaurant I had heard such good things about. (Am I getting old, or impatient, or both?) Of course I want to try it, but when did going out for dinner become a battle? And why do so many hipster restaurants design this into the program? Is it such a sin to want to have a conversation with your dining companion? Man, is it irritating, when all I want is that and a good meal. It makes me nostalgic for the civilized New York Italian places I remember so well from my childhood.

I thought about Volare, a pretty little place on West 4th Street that I last visited about 15 years ago, when my father, husband, and I stopped in not to eat but to get away from the cold and crowds of Washington Square, to have a Sambuca at the cozy bar. And of course the Sambuca came con mosca (“with flies,” which actually means coffee beans, set alight by our black-jacketed bartender). What a nice place. My father was really in his element. And Volare is still there, unlike so many small, family-run places that have gotten swallowed up by the Batali and McNally machines or by some nail salon. I wish all the cozy old places would just stay put, but even when they do there is usually one big problem with them—the food. More often than not, the cooking has gone downhill or just stagnated in Northern or Southern Italian–American misery land. I love many old-time dishes, of both the red and white sauce varieties, but a little sprucing up from time to time is required to keep the old joints going.

I had dinner at Volare the other night and I’m happy to report the food is very good.

The focal point of the small, pretty room at Volare is a series of burlesque-style artworks painted in the 1930s by Cleon Throckmorton, a Broadway set designer (Porgy and Bess, The Threepenny Opera), who lived around the corner on West 3rd Street. They keep these gorgeous paintings in top-notch shape, as they do the rest of the place (it always looks freshly painted). It’s quiet, gentle, and has the kind of warm attentive service that can bring a tear to your eye.

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Another Throckmorton masterpiece.

The menu is old-fashioned, but with some excellent surprises. You’ve got your baked clams (which I ordered and found delicious—subtle and tender), insalata di mare, antipasto freddo with salami and such, but they also make trippa alla Romana, which I ordered because I can never resist a steaming plate of tripe. It was excellent, completely tender and rich, with touches of celery and lots of white wine. My husband ordered the insalata Volare, which turned out to be a type of chopped salad with a toss of arugula, cannellini beans, hearts of palms, artichokes, and red onions. This was great, a nice change from the usual flabby insalata mista offered at many places.

The pastas all sounded interesting, and they must be somewhat updated, since I can’t imagine finding pappardelle alla lepre (with rabbit ragù) at any restaurant in the 1950s. My husband ordered that. It was wonderful, although I found the pappardelle almost a little too al dente (usually you have the opposite problem in old-timer places like this).

Many of the people around us ordered steaks and veal chops and osso bucco. I’ve heard from a few regulars that Volare’s steaks and chops are outstanding, and they’re absolutely huge, enough to feed two, or to bring home for another substantial meal. Next time.

I kept looking around the place, admiring the stunning murals and the shiny white lacquered tin ceiling, taking in the couples and little groups of happy people, eating and chatting away. We ordered homemade cannolis for dessert. I was ready to be disappointed. I haven’t been able to find a decent cannoli in this city for some time. Volare’s were perfect, filled to order, crisp, beautiful. Of course I had to order a Sambuca to go with them, in memory of my father, and of course it still came con mosca. Can’t forget the mosca.

What a great place. I hope it stays forever.

Volare
147 West 4th Street (between MacDougal Street and Sixth Avenue)
New York, N.Y.
(212) 777-2849

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agathazurbaran

February 5 is the feast day of Saint Agatha, patron saint of Catania, Sicily. Now, that may not mean a hell of a lot to most people, but to many Italian-Americans (who, of course, are mostly Southern Italian) there is the exciting little memory of eating their first Saint Agatha’s nipple, the breast-shaped pastry that was created in the monastery kitchens of Palermo, made its way to Catania, and then landed in Italian pastry shops in New York and elsewhere where Italians wound up in this country. The nipples were very cute, and a little shocking to a kid.

Saint Agatha was born in Catania in the third century, and according to the various versions of her story, she rejected the advances of a Roman prefect, and he began to persecute her for her Christian faith. Among the many tortures she underwent was having her breasts cut off. She is usually depicted in art carrying them on a platter. Of course the disturbingly creative Sicilians turn many urges into things you can put in your mouth, especially if it gives them a chance to demonstrate their love-hate relationship with their religion. So there you have it.

I’ve spent the last week searching around Manhattan for pastry shops that still make Agatha’s signature pastry, which are frequently called minni di virgini (virgin breasts) or casatine (little casatas). They’re most often filled with sweet ricotta and then covered with bright green marzipan and slicked with a shiny coating of white icing and finished with a cherry nipple. I’ve eaten them in Palermo, and I’ve eaten them in Glen Cove, Long Island, and they’re just about the most toothachingly sweet pastry I’ve sunk my weak, filling-laden teeth into. But I loved them.

nipple

I made the rounds of all the classic Manhattan Italian shops, and I have to say, now I remember why I stopped going to most of those places.The pastries are mostly terrible and have been getting worse for years. Much of the stuff is now made with inferior ingredients, has a greasy mouth feel, is loaded with chemicals and dyes, and for whatever other reasons just tastes unnatural. I believe this  is not just me being a snob; the pastries of my heritage really have gone downhill.

The only shop I could locate that still makes Agatha’s nipples in Manhattan is De Robertis, in the East Village. (I also called shops in Brooklyn and Queens. I didn’t get around to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx because I knew I wasn’t going to make it up there, but they could hold  promise.) De Robertis is a beautiful little family-run place, opened in 1904 and left fairly unchanged except for the replacement of the old banquettes in the 1990s. I commend them for carrying on with tradition, but like all the other Italian pastry shops in town, they’ve let their ingredients become way too commercial to produce wonderful pastries. Their ricotta cheesecake now tastes like cream cheese and pastry cream instead of good ricotta, with no hint of the classic orange flower water flavoring that makes the real cake so alluring. Their cookies are full of low-grade chocolate and stale nuts. This didn’t happen overnight, but still, it’s sad to see those beautiful Southern Italian sweets take such a slide.

I sat in De Robertis’s white-and-gold-tiled back room eating my Saint Agatha’s nipple, with it’s day-glo green filling. Wow, is this thing sweet, and a lot more solid than I remember. It looked exactly the same as always, a petite, pretty little white breast with a puffy red nipple, but so dense. I wanted to suggest just a little upgrading of ingredients and a return to a bit of finesse, to make the nipple and all De Robertis’s other sweet things great again, but what would be the point? I was happy just to find one of these somewhere in the city.

Recently Saint Agatha has become the patron saint of breast cancer patients, and since several of my friends have had or are currently having problems in that department, I dedicate my successful search for Agatha’s signature pastry to them.

De Robertis
176 First Avenue (at 13th Street)
New York , N.Y.
(212) 674-7137

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gottinoGottino’s charming storage cellar.

I finally got to Gottino.

Even though it’s one of the most talked about, best reviewed Italian wine bars in this restaurant-stuffed city, and is only a few blocks from my apartment, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to make it through the door. Gottino has been open for a little more than a year. I’ve walked by in early evening and seen a mob jammed around the bar, people pushing for space. The place was not for me. I don’t like loud, cramped eateries. I was, however, interested in trying some of chef Jody Williams’s potted terrines of salt cod, salmon, or chicken liver or pork. Those things appeal to me. I also liked the sound of her crostini selection.

The problem with a wine bar that serves serious food, as I see it, is that we’re not a tapas nation. We don’t snack at six and then eat a real dinner at ten or eleven the way they do in Spain. So when we go to a wine bar, we try to make a meal of it, and $40 worth of little nibbles later, not including wine (which at Gottino runs around $12 to $18 a glass), we may have managed to fill up, but mostly with salt and fat. These places always seem to me more like troughs than places for humans, who generally like to socialize when they eat. I thought, maybe I should just go to Gottino one evening all by myself and brave the crowd to taste stuff. That sounded lonely and depressing. Instead I decided to try lunch.

Not only is  lunch at Gottino uncrowded, but you get to see how pretty the little place actually is. When jammed with people, it looks like any other trattoria or bistro-in-a-box prefab restaurant in the city, nice but kind of soulless. But when you can actually see the walls and the floor, the space looks like it was fashioned by a real person, with mismatched seats and naturally weathered wine memorabilia. The wall across from the bar is decorated with white porcelain grandma platters, and over one of the little tables in the back are framed photos of Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and Joe Di Maggio, a touch you’d sooner expect at pizza parlor. But the place is elegant too, with a white marble-topped bar, something you’d find in Milan, and a gem-toned glass-fruit chandelier purchased from my friend Claude’s Provençal pottery shop a few blocks away.

Gottino is almost all bar, except for four little tables in the rear (each one laid out with a basket of walnuts and hazelnuts and a nutcracker, just like my grandfather used to always set out on his coffee table) and, beyond those, a small outside garden, which on the freezing day I was there was closed to humans but loaded with house sparrows and squirrels, hoping I’m sure to get an olive oil–soaked crust of toast (I threw a few out to them). There’s a downstairs wine and vegetable storage area that you go through to get to the bathroom. I found it unpretentious, filled in a naturally abundant way with stuff they really need, like  baskets of apples, walnuts, and butternut squash and cases of wine, stacked and stuck in every which way. It didn’t have the movie-set look you sometimes get in places that are trying hard to be rustico.

I arrived at about 1:30 p.m. There were a few singles at the back tables with laptops and platters of artichoke bruschetta and a few people sitting at the bar reading newspapers and drinking espresso. My sister and I took one of the little tables and cracked walnuts whose shells kept falling to the floor. Gottino at lunch, at least for the moment, is very peaceful.

The only problem with going there then is that I usually don’t like drinking wine at lunch, and since it’s a wine bar, you don’t really get the full experience unless you have a glass, at least. Actually nobody in there was drinking wine, except for a wine salesman and a few employees hovering around him for a tasting. Lots of coffee is served at lunchtime, and I have to tell you, anchovies taste really bad with cappuccino. Next time I’m having wine. I’ll pretend I’m on vacation.

The lunch menu focuses on good toppings on toast in various sizes, from crostini to bruschetta to panini, plus salads, a daily soup, a daily frittata, and, the day I was there, Gottino’s now-famous rabbit pot pie. You also can order salumi and cheese. You have to go in the evening to get the little pots of chicken livers or boar pâté and certain other small plates such as braised tripe.

I was happy to discover that the portions weren’t mini. I ordered a salad of pears, gorgonzola, and greens that was a good size, and they were very generous with their excellent gorgonzola. I also chose a crostini topped with artichokes seasoned with mint. My sister had lentil soup, vegetarian but richly flavored, and crostini with stracchino cheese, roasted grape tomatoes, and capers. She must have snatched up the last bowl of lentil soup; after her order the waiter announced to another table that the special soup was chestnut. The menu is cheese-heavy, just about everything including some type of cheese. That is fine with me, and all the cheeses I tasted were excellent, especially the stracchino, which was tangy and ripe. We also ordered a crostini with anchovies and butter (I can never resist anchovy anything on any menu). It was intense and delicious, but in the end I found I had requested a huge amount of food (I’m always afraid of not getting enough at a wine bar). I’m sure I would have been able to finish it all had I ordered a nice cool glass of Sicilian Grillo instead of the cappuccino.

I’d like to go back and try the smoked prosciutto, prune, and tallegio panini, and also the Brussels sprouts salad with pecorino and walnuts. I have to admit I like Williams’s style, as it reminds me of my own cooking, where I try to balance strong and gentle flavors in each dish, leaning on Southern Italian tastes. Even her signature walnut pesto crostini was something I had a version of in my last book. I wrote it way before her place opened, so you know I didn’t pilfer it.

Gottino
52 Greenwich Avenue (near Charles Street)
New York, N.Y.
(212) 633-2590

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