The Italian-American Job

2011.Apr.16 Saturday · 4 comments

in Life, Restaurants

Still reeling from a near one pound bacon burger (actually, given everything on it, it was probably over a pound) and mounds of fried pickles, it’s a wonder that I could even consider anything else food related for the day. But hey, it’s my life, right? A stop at Eataly, 200 5th Avenue, was a must – it’s opened since I was last in town, everyone’s buzzing about it, and I used to work for the whole Bastianich and Batali empire – back when it was more of a fiefdom.

It’s kind of fun and at the same time terrifying to walk through. There’s tons of ingredients and products to look at and think about and imagine meals made with. But at the same time there are literally ravaging hordes in the aisles, pushing and shoving to get at one item or another. Every bit of floor space that can be and still leave pathways through is covered with either shelving or tables at which to eat. I can’t remotely imagine wanting to put myself through a dining experience in the place with shoppers threading their way between tables, reaching over them, resting their bags on them, standing next to them earnestly discussing whatever recipe it is they plan to make with their purchases. And, the truth, if I still lived in Manhattan, I doubt I’d shop there unless there was some particular ingredient that no one else had – and there didn’t seem to be too many of those – though the sticker prices are certainly higher than anyone else’s around. The idea of having to stand in long lines just to purchase a wedge of cheese doesn’t excite me. So, I spent about half an hour wandering about and then hightailed it out of there.






After that it was a break for awhile to take care of one thing or another, including a lovely walk along the west side piers from the Village back down to Battery Park. An evening outing was planned as one of our famed appetizer crawls – a trio of us this time. In the end however, none of us was quite hungry enough to go through it all, and we ended up just eating at two spots.

The first was Ai Fiori, 400 5th Ave in the Setai hotel, where Wisconsin boy Michael White is whipping up more of the exciting Italian food like he has been for the last couple of years at Marea. We sat in the lounge area, ordered up a bottle of 2001 Riesling Smaragd “Brandstatt” from Sighardt Donabaum – spectacular petrol and apricot fruit notes, great balance, drinking beautifully. We sampled our way through a selection of appetizer, pasta and main courses, which already set the tone that this was not going to be one of our usual crawls with just a dish or two at each spot.

Ai Fiori - uova

This is his uova appetizer, I think our favorite out of everything. This isn’t the way it’s presented, which is in a simple white bowl that looks like it’s filled with foam – not exactly an interesting picture – so here is a scoop of it dished out on a plate – a slow poached egg, lobster knuckles and crispy sweetbreads, all in that foam I mentioned, made from a Coteaux du Layon wine – a sweet white made from Chenin blanc.

Ai Fiori - gnochetti

Glowing yellow saffron gnocchetti (misspelled on the menu with only one “c”, but hey, Michael’s from Wisconsin, like I am originally, what do we know?), all mixed up with sea urchin, blue crab, tomato, and crispy breadcrumbs. Delicious! He does do wonderful things with breadcrumbs….

After polishing off a respectable number of dishes and a bottle of wine, we headed downtown to visit with another friend (since Michael hadn’t been there we couldn’t visit with him, we’d missed him by a bit, presumably he was either done for the night – no, too early – or more likely at Marea. But we called ahead to make sure that Mark Forgione, America’s newest Iron Chef, was in his eponymous restaurant at 134 Reade Street. Mark was one of the sous chefs at AZ when I worked there, and, in a swap-around from Michael above, he’s an Italian guy cooking up hearty American food. Again, we ordered a range of dishes, along with a bottle of a peculiar wine – from Heitz Cellars, a Grignolino 2008 – the grape being one of the lesser lights of Piemonte, in fact I think I’ve probably only had two or three in my life, and quite possibly the only American bottling of one – the story being that 8 acres of the property that Joseph Heitz originally bought to start his vineyard were already planted to it and he left them in place, making this one of the few old vine Grignolinos out there as well. Ripe strawberry fruit, high acidity, virtually no tannin (unusual for the grape), and a hint of an earthy rusticity – fascinating and tasty at the same time.

Forgione - ramp carbonara

Out of the various dishes we tried I think we all pretty much liked this the most, a spaghetti carbonara – but a fun version with a whole egg yolk just waiting to be whipped into the pasta, along with crispy guanciale and fresh ramps.

By this point the night was drawing to a close and we were drawing to our limits, so we decided to call it an evening. Hard to say when the next one of these will be – my friend Warner with whom I’ve done these crawls over the last many years is up and leaving this week for California – so who knows? Perhaps the next one will be somewhere out there on a visit….

For me, on to Louisville, yes, in Kentucky.


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