Sorella: Downright Dreamy Italian
I love Sorella. It’s the type of place you write down and remember for future occasions, the type of place you return to time and time again for the remarkable experience, the type of place you mark as ‘special’. It’s not only the gorgeous Italian cuisine that’s worth raving about but also the no fuss no muss dining experience in a lovely spot where the Lower East Side meets Chinatown.
South of Delancey on Allen Street and across from Congee Village, Sorella’s located in an unusual spot for a high-brow and luxe Italian restaurant. Hidden behind heavy distressed wood doors, only a small burgundy sign alerts those looking for it that yes, you’re in the right place. The front room is a dark and sultry wine bar with high table tops, communal seating, bottles upon bottles of Italian wine twinkling in the low candlelight, requisite exposed brick, and inlaid photos of the Piedmont region, chef Emma Hearst’s culinary inspiration. The glass-ceilinged back annex is altogether different with a far brighter and more civilized atmosphere. Almost bare white walls, delicate modern metal ‘chandeliers’, and muted contemporary grey furniture are the blank canvas for Hearst’s electric small-plates Italian cuisine.
Now, I knew Sorella would be good. It benefits from strong buzz through foodie circles and almost unanimous praise from critics. Yet, even I was surprised by how good it actually was. Sorella’s Piedmontese menu offers 13 or so ‘Qualcosina’ or ‘A Little Something’. Sized between tapas and large plates, these tantalizing offerings are priced between $8 and $16 and are meant to be shared. Alongside the Qualcosina are 2-course Stasera Abbiamo pairings – essentially 1 Qualcosina and 1 special entree dish for $30. Each dish on the remarkably well-curated menu is more lovely than the last, ranging from a fresh watermelon salad with goat cheese to grilled quail with watercress & orange salad to ruby red shrimp risotto, beef agnolotti with parmesan & sage butter, and crispy veal sweetbreads with quince bacon marmalade.
My friend and fellow food blogger Zoe and I picked three Qualcosinas and 1 special entree dish. All four choices were delicious, ranging from truly extraordinary (the gnudi) to downright soul-satisfying (the sugar snap pea risotto). Perhaps one of the most remarkable pasta dishes I’ve ever had, the Salvatore Ricotta Gnudi with tomato jam and basil & sunflower seed pesto was like eating clouds. Each fluffy potato dumpling was impossibly pillowy, moist, and light – an all-around beautifully prepared dish. The Tajarin offered an entirely different sort of pasta dish than the gnudi. Made with a fettuccine-like egg noodle, lamb ragu, pistachios, mint, and black pepper ricotta, the Tajarin was hefty and complex. At first, the mint hits you hard, but once you get a taste of each distinct flavor, the dish is wonderfully complicated study in how to successfully pair flavors together.
The sugar snap pea risotto, a special for the evening, was distinctly less high-brow and complex than the other dishes, yet it showed that Chef Hearst knows how to cook up a mean risotto like the rest of them. Salty and savory with fresh sugar snap peas in the pods and chunky cuts of ham, the risotto was Piedmontese comfort food, something you’d want to eat over and over again on a chilly night. Surprisingly though, the house special is not a pasta dish. The Pate de Fegato, a dressed-up Egg McMuffin, shows Chef Hearst’s range and skill. A perfectly cut rectangle of crispy toasted English Muffin is topped with airy and light yet flavor-packed chicken liver mousse, a fried egg that erupts golden yellow yolk when cut, and crispy bacon bits; the effect is rich and round without being too much. A perfect starter, the Pate de Fegato is a must for all those visiting Sorella.
Small, hidden, and smart, Sorella is one of the better restaurants I’ve been to this year. It’s understated in a charming and unpretentious way. On walking in, while the spot is lovely and alluring, you can’t imagine how wonderful the food actually ends up being; it is hands-down one of the Lower East Side’s brightest shining stars.
Perfect For: first dates, curious foodies, hipster wine snobs, friends looking to catch up quietly, quick bites at the bar, civilized eating without formality