Ciano, a charming Italian restaurant, is a welcome addition to Flatiron’s extensive though tepid culinary scene, yet it lacks the finesse to make it a truly memorable dining experience. It must be tough to make it as an Italian restaurant in New York, given the vast amounts of competition in almost every discernible neighborhood. And while Ciano is well-run and serves good Italian cuisine, it can’t hold a candle to the truly soulful Italian fixins’ at Locanda Verde, the now defunct Convivio, Apizz, or even the far more casual West Village newbie Spasso. It just comes up a little bit short on personality.
The duplex space on East 22nd Street, just around the corner from the Flatiron building, is the epitome of faux rusticity. At first blush, it appears to be brimming with rustic charm; lush plants are just about everywhere you look, the furniture and floor are both made of warm wood, and remnants of countryside kitsch are found everywhere. However, when one looks a little closer, all this rusticity at Ciano is noticeably false; it doesn’t look real or believable with crisp white tablecloths, plants arranged into perfect neat bouquets, expensive modern light fixtures, and each design element so impeccably suited to another that it just comes off as matchy-matchy. Sure, it’s ‘elegant,’ but the half-way rustic vibe makes it seem like Ciano is trying to hard to be trendy. My advice? If you want to be a fine dining restaurant, don’t sell out to the rustic chic trend and confidently go hog-wild with formality.
The simple Italian food at Ciano is prepared by Chef Shea Gallante, the former chef at the much beloved and deceased Cru, and is generally very good. It’s technically excellent, based on fresh seasonal ingredients, and ‘the stuff you want to eat,’ but for whatever reason, it’s not so delicious or so exciting for it to be memorable. The menu is short, but not too short, with nine snacks and five or six each of appetizers, pastas, and entrees. Out of the snacks, the arancini are tasty – ideal little bites of fried cheesy rice. The chicken liver crostini is also good, though not remarkable. As starters go, the burrata di bufala is naturally scrumptious (it’s pretty difficult to mess up burrata), particularly when layered with the savory sweet onion jam and bitter and salty pesto on top of the charred thick slices of country bread. But, the burrata is $18, an astonishing number for a starter offered for less at the very pricey Hearth or Peasant.
The pastas are delicious – the best thing offered by Ciano as far as I can tell, both in terms of taste and of value. A ‘spring’ ravioli, stuffed with burrata and sweet peas, is earthy, bright, and buttery; for $15, it’s one of the best deals on the menu. The pappardelle is more substantial, heavier, and meatier with a duck bolognese dusted with hearty oregano; nutty pecorino shaved on top makes this dish fairly addictive. The saffron tagliatelle is luxurious with chunks of Dungeness crab, yet the strong flavor of saffron is a touch over-powering; a lighter hand would transform this dish into something marvelous. As entrees go, Ciano’s are fine. A steak is just a steak, and the lamb loin with lamb sausage is just a lamb loin. There is nothing so astonishing or memorable about either.
Everything at Ciano is neat, clean, refined, and ‘just so.’ Both the food and the atmosphere seem too precise for casual Italian dining, too sterile to incite exuberant passion. Dining at Ciano is ‘nice,’ but not wonderful or thrilling, not something to remember for weeks after or to leap at the chance to repeat. With such a respected pedigree (former Cru chef, former Cru sommelier, and former Per Se maitre’d), I had hoped Ciano would just be better than the ‘good’ it is. It’s just the place to take clients from out of town – the price point is right and the room is elegant enough to impress; but for those seeking romance or intimacy, something different, Ciano is not so special.
Perfect For: taking clients out, treating your parents, indulging in ricotta cheese, third or fourth dates, having a ‘mature’ dinner out