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Posts from the ‘slice of heaven’ Category

Rubirosa: A Classic Pizzeria with Nolita Flair

Considering how difficult it is to get a reservation at Rubirosa and how much buzz the restaurant has had since opening, I had expected the Nolita pizzeria to be unattainably fashionable and perhaps even a little snotty. Thus, what a surprise it was to discover instead a warm, convivial and family-friendly neighborhood establishment that appears to be rabidly popular with trendy young things, neighborhood families, traveling foodies, singles, and couples alike.

A cheery blood orange and crimson facade with a retro painted sign announce Rubirosa’s presence. The pizzeria’s space on a Mulberry Street block shared by Balaboosta, Eight Mile Creek, and Torrisi Italian Specialties is narrow and quirky. The front area is primarily a bar, where diners without reservations nosh at high-top tables and tame groups of revelers enjoy reasonably-priced bottles of wine and artfully-concocted house cocktails. Towards the back of the front room and in the tiny back room, normal tables held for those parties with reservations wait. Rubirosa channels a homespun rusticity popular amongst casual eateries these days in New York – striped wallpaper covers the walls in one nook; tables are made from hefty hewn dark wood; pails of fresh Gerber daisies sit on the bar; mismatched framed black-and-white photographs of Italian neighborhoods hang neatly on the dark grey walls; hanging lanterns with soft scalloped edges shed a warm glow over patrons. Though not necessarily unique these days, the look is charming, comfortable, and a bit more upscale than your typical New York pizzeria.

Though Rubirosa bills itself as a classic pizzeria, it offers a full Italian menu with antipasti, pastas, pizza, and secondi. The bruschetta are a great way to start a meal – and a great value at $3 each. My favorite is the Meatball – a soft and savory traditional meatball atop a large piece of crusty fresh-baked Italian bread and coated in warm tomato sauce and melted Parmesan. Other options include the earthy and nutty Mushroom variety and the rich Caramelized Onion with pieces of braised duck. For a pizzeria, the salad options are quite sophisticated – beets with goat cheese, an iceberg wedge with bacon and vodka blue cheese dressing, a warm mozzarella caprese. Classic antipasti follows – delicately fried calamari, arancini stuffed with prosciutto and gooey fontina, roasted octopus with tomato and potato, and of course, an Italian-American homage to eggplant parmesan.

The pastas are all made in-house and range from a succulent lasagna with sausage AND meatballs for two to a decadent hand-rolled manicotti, ricotta ravioli and a refreshing whole wheat fettucini with asparagus and zucchini. The ‘black-and-white’ tagliatelle is an embarrassment of riches – a squid ink pasta accompanied by clams, mussels, scallops, and shrimp; it’s briny, silky, and perfect for seafood-lovers. Of course, despite this spectacular array of food, Rubirosa is best known for its wondrous ultra thin-crust pizzas. The crust is wafer-thin, crispy at the crust, and slightly chewy at the center. The toppings are layered on, but not too thickly. The vodka pizza, a house speciality, is light and airy, best with a sprinkle of crushed red pepper and a tossing of shredded Parmesan.

Rubirosa is a wonderful neighborhood establishment – a refreshingly laid-back restaurant in a neighborhood known for high prices, high fashion, and “high horses.” The service is efficient and friendly, the food accessible and reasonably-priced (for Manhattan), and the atmosphere congenial. Sure, the food isn’t haute gourmet or even perfectly-executed, but what does that matter when you can slurp it down with a $30 bottle of house wine (quite the bargain, if you ask me)?

Perfect For: post-shopping pigouts, lowkey date nights, weeknight quick dinners for Nolita locals, thin crust pizza fanatics, wining and dining, noshing at the bar

Rubirosa on Urbanspoon


Don Giovanni: Classic Red Sauce Italian, With a Small Dose of Charm

Don Giovanni is a neighborhood joint, nothing more and nothing less. It’s not fancy and it’s not grimy. It’s the type of comfortable and acceptably tasty restaurant that’s good for couples and families, roommates, tourists, students, gallery employees and building staff. There is not a lot of pretension here, or a lot of service for that matter. It’s just simple, quick, and cheap.

Located on a stretch of 10th Avenue made newly popular by the High Line, Don Giovanni is pretty much always packed these days. The inside is casual and cramped, with little attention paid to design. A tiny bar with seats mostly filled with people waiting for tables is situated just next to the kitchen window where pizza orders are constantly being filled by the bustling kitchen staff. The best part about Don Giovanni is the sidewalk seating, seemingly open as soon as the snow melts. With an awning lined with Christmas lights and a few phalanxes of slightly rickety metal dining furniture, the sidewalk at Don Giovanni is charming, especially when the weather is warm and the stylish folk of Chelsea are out in full force. With the High Line entrance just a few short blocks away, the people-watching is some of the best in the area.
The food at Don Giovanni is straight-up traditional red-sauce Italian: thin-crust pizzas, spaghetti & meatballs, chicken parmesan, caprese salad and bruschetta, fettucine alfredo, ravioli, lasagna, veal piccata, and so forth. If you’re in the mood for basic Italian goodies, Don Giovanni is a fine option – nothing is surprising, you know what you’re going to get. The pizza is good ole New York-style pizza with a thin, crispy, slightly chewy and immensely flavorful crust, oozing fresh cheese, and savory tomato sauce. The pasta is nothing to write home about, especially if you’ve sampled anything cooked by Michael White, but it’s hearty and satisfying, served in massive belly-filling portions. The meatballs are nostalgic: moist, salty, massive, and doused in puddles of Italian tomato ‘gravy’. I could keep going, but I think you know the type of food I’m talking about. It’s good and easy, accessible to pretty much anyone. Well, anyone except perhaps snobs.
Don Giovanni is reminiscent of the old Italian New York, Mott Street and the Italian sections of the Bronx – none of the new-fangled gourmet Italian stuff here. And while there are no truffles in your pasta sauce or ramps on your pizza, the food is tasty and cheap. In fact, very cheap. So cheap as to have prices finishing in .95, which for students like myself, is excellent. Easy and relaxed, this Chelsea neighborhood hangout is just about perfect for sharing a pie on balmy spring night with Peronis and a jumbo piece of tiramisu.

Perfect For: pizza and beers, people-watching over a bottle of wine, High Line visitors, cheap eats, a quick dinner out, families and pet-owners (for sidewalk seating)

Don Giovanni Ristorante on Urbanspoon

Co (Company): Top-Notch Neapolitan Pizza, Off the Radar

Neapolitan pizza, as a food group, has witnessed a serious resurgence in Manhattan over the past couple years. Motorino, Keste and most recently Donatella have received pages upon pages of press for their authentic Neapolitan pies. Co or Company, the brainchild of Sullivan Street Bakery’s Jim Lahey, opened in early 2009 and has stealthily become a neighborhood favorite ever since.

On the quiet corner of 24th and 9th Avenue, Co is very much under-the-radar with little more than a small hanging sign announcing its presence. Inside, the 54-seat dining room at Co exudes warmth, looking somewhat like a sauna (though, you know, without the oppressive heat), with contemporary wood paneling, a long rustic communal table, and soft low lighting emitted from contemporary rectangular chandeliers and industrial chic pendant lamps. The look is simple, casual, comfortable, homey without being chintzy, sleek and clean without being cold or impersonal. Near the door is a tiny bar, with just four or five seats for those seeking a solo meal or glass of wine; the bartender is chatty, good company for those waiting for friends or just looking for conversation.

The food at Co is rustic Italian, with a focus on Lahey’s funky neapolitan pizza baked at 700 degrees in a wood-burning oven imported from Modena. Start with a pizza bianca, a small white pie served with coarse sea salt, olive oil, and ricotta, if you’re willing to pay the extra $8; it’s a significant upgrade from the typical bread & butter boredom and a great way to sample Lahey’s impressive bread-making skills. It would be silly to visit Co without trying one of their round pizzas.

There’s one for every taste: the Rosa for purists, served simply with crushed tomato, garlic, oregano and chili, the Margarita for traditionalists, the Meatball for carnivores, packed with bits of veal meatballs, the Brussels Sprouts for the adventurous types, layered with bechamel, parmesan, lardons, chestnuts, red onion and chili. The Stracciatella is a masterpiece with rounds of mellow stracciatella melted over a white base, fresh and bright crushed tomatoes, the refreshing bite of arugula, and a shower of fresh ground black pepper – perfection! For those seeking a funkier blend between French and Italian flavors, the Flambe is marvelous, a rich and smoky bechamel base with crispy lardons, bursts of nutty parmesan and fresh mozzarella, and silky and slightly sweet caramelized onions. The diversity of Lahey’s Roman-inspired pies can be overwhelming for first-timers, yet truly exciting for those up to the challenge of choosing one or two.

Co is a welcoming sort of place, meant for groups of friends to congregate and enjoy good and simple food. The service is efficient and warm, the kitchen speedy, and the mostly local crowd civilized, and congenial. Co is pleasantly under-the-radar, devoid of the rabid crowds loitering outside Keste or the long waits at Motorino; Lahey’s labor of love has a quiet confidence about it that puts patrons at ease. With no pretensions and few irritating quirks, Co is a lovely choice for pizza lovers uninterested in fighting or waiting for their fix.

Perfect For: pizza fiends, a quiet dinner in the neighborhood, the 3rd or 4th date, solo meals, those-in-the-know seeking food off the High Line

Co. (Company) on Urbanspoon

Accademia di Vino – Broadway: Another UWS Quasi-Olive Garden

I don’t know about you, but I’m still desperately seeking decent food on the Upper West Side. Accademia di Vino – Broadway, the sister restaurant to the Upper East Side Accademia di Vino and Cesca, is just another disappointment in a long string of supposedly wonderful yet ultimately boring neighborhood restaurants. Without mincing words, it’s cheesy, disorganized, and mediocre.

Deceptively far north on the Upper West Side, the space can at best be described as quirky and at worst as “how did you ever think of designing a restaurant like this.” There appear to be three ‘rooms,’ all set at angles to each other. The dominant area is the bar room, just in front of the door. It’s inevitably going to be packed with cougars talking to greying bankers talking to their colleagues. The best way to describe the decor is ‘up-scale’ Olive Garden with burgundy leather and obviously expensive yet hideously ugly contemporary ceiling lamps, glowing strangely blue in an otherwise refined old school environment. My first thought was how bizarrely UFO-like they were. There are people everywhere: 2 hosts, 1093523958 busboys and waiters, couples packed into small corner tables, groups of 40 year olds at long tables adjacent to the bar. It’s confused and confusing. If you’re lucky enough to be sat on the opposite side of the restaurant from the bar, there’s a bit of respite from the chaotic hum yet no escape from the cheap-looking wood-paneling and flimsy furniture.

Perhaps design faux-pas would have been forgiven if the food were as tasty as expected. Alas, no. Accademia di Vino-Broadway’s menu of Italian pizzas, pastas, and small plates is tantalizing from all angles. Classic antipasti offers charred brussels sprouts, fresh ricotta and honey, eggplant caponata, and so forth; a plethora of cheeses and meats, small plates, fresh fish crudo, and both seafood and meat carpaccios and tartares are like a siren song for lovers of Italian cuisine; individual grilled pizzas range from the classic tomato, basil and mozzarella to the house specialty of robiola, pecorino and black truffle; pastas abound, from traditional bolognese, cacio e pepe, and spaghetti carbonara to butternut squash ravioli and whole wheat pasta with eggplant, mozzarella and basil. The sheer array of both old school and new age Italian offerings dazzle and overwhelm, building excitement and high expectations.

Unfortunately, everything just seems to fall flat. The fresh ricotta antipasti was good, though sadly under-salted and not nearly as tasty as that at Locanda Verde, A Voce Columbus, or Peasant. The house speciality, robiola, black truffle & pecorino pizza, was bland; completely over-doused in cloying truffle oil, what should have been sharp and nutty Pecorino wilted and the fluffy Robiola cheese merely faded to the background. Aside from the virtually tasteless toppings, the pizza was little more than a flatbread, completely lacking in any texture or char. The pastas are a major improvement over the rest of the menu, particularly the basics, however they are by no means works of art. Instead, they’re more just like the quick dishes your mother would whip up, tasty and simple. Don’t expect any unusual ingredients, original cooking techniques or inspired presentations here!

With such an extraordinary selection of mid-price Italian restaurants in Manhattan, many of which are excellent (Peasant, Locanda Verde, Barbuto, Giorgione, Il Buco, Lavagna, Maialino, novita, and Sorella, to name a few), I can’t imagine why one would choose Accademia di Vino-Broadway. Granted, tasty eats in the neighborhood are disappointingly few and far between, but with such things as the New York City Subway and too many taxi cabs to count, not traveling for good Italian just doesn’t cut it.

Accademia di Vino on Urbanspoon

Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria: Another Mediocre Addition to McNally’s Middling Empire

Given what’s about to be said in this review, it may seem like I have some sort of personal vendetta against Keith McNally, the restauranteur behind Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria, given my vocal irritation with some of his establishments, most notably Schiller’s Liquor Bar. To cut to the chase, Pulino’s is exactly like every other McNally restaurant: mediocre food, crap service, heavily fabricated atmosphere. In fact, it’s so freakishly similar to his other Lower East Side eatery, Schiller’s, that I’m convinced they’re really just one in the same, despite an Italian menu at one and a straightforward American one at the other.

Pulino’s is (depressingly) completely lacking in any originality. It is almost garish, evidenced by the obnoxious oversized red neon sign emblazoned on both exterior sides of the corner spot. The medium-to-large dining room on the corner of Bowery and Houston is merely a reincarnation of Schiller’s: exposed brick, tiled floors, bric-a-brac-y metal furniture, backlit bottles of booze on multiple walls, stacked high to the ceiling. A vast array of untouched international newspapers and magazines are stacked in racks near the door, an additional touch of so-called charm that just strikes me as pretentious. Perhaps the most beautiful element of the restaurant, the large paned industrial-style windows, is the design’s saving grace, distracting diners with lush sunlight during lunch and pretty satisfying people-watching at night. The look of the restaurant is meant to evoke an old Italian pizzeria and yet, instead, it is a case study in the new Manhattan-style ‘chain’ restaurant, developed and executed by professional restaurant creators who’ve lost all their inspiration.

The menu is classic Italian. Expect traditional antipasti: baked ricotta, prosciutto, a variety of cheeses, mozzarella burrata, roasted olives. The baked ricotta is one of the shining stars, served creamy and just salty enough in a rustic crockpot with juicy and sweet roasted grapes and crusty Italian bread. Salads are also on the menu, in both appetizer and entree portions. Expect seasonal ingredients, sometimes Italian and sometimes not: roasted pumpkin and cabbage salad with pecorino and pancetta, roasted broccoli and hen of the woods mushrooms with escarole and parmigiano, seafood salad with roasted peppers, and an Italian rendition of salad nicoise. They are hearty, fragrant, and just about average.

In my opinion, it’s silly to visit a pizzeria without trying the pizza. Pulino’s can’t hold a candle to Motorino or Donatella, but at the heart of it, the pizza has a pretty tasty crust, a victory over the certainly mediocre toppings. Chewy and crusty in all the right places, with a slight char and a few bubbles, the crust is multidimensional and satisfying. The toppings options are dizzying, offering 12 different varieties of pies + a plethora of additional toppings. There’s a traditional Bianca pie, a mozzarella, the quattro formaggi, the classic Margherita, salsiccia, funghi, meatball pie, and a few funkier choices like spinach and egg, black cabbage and salame, or potato and egg. The quattro formaggi is gooey and bland; somehow, with four different and bold cheeses (mozzarella, fontina, gorgonzola, and grana), the flavor falls flat into a muddled mess. The polpettine pie, with beef meatballs and pickled green chilis, is a disaster, despite being the recommended by the server. The meatballs are small and dry, utterly devoid of moisture, and the pickled green chilis are unspeakably wrong on this pizza. Ick, ugh, and meh.

On top of all of this, the service is just plain strange. My party had three servers over the course of lunch, who kept repeating each other. One server made the dastardly mistake of recommending the polpettine pizza and the other gave me a water glass with orange juice pulp floating in it. Furthermore, the kitchen is slow and bad with timing. With 15 minutes elapsed between the delivery of my meal and my friend’s meal, the meal pacing was awkward, to say the least.

In short, Pulino’s is a hot mess. Let me count the ways: 1) unoriginal and charmless decor, 2) chain restaurant feel, 3) bland pizza in the East Coast’s pizza capital, and 4) confused and confusing table service. It’s hard to recommend a place that clearly seems to be surviving only on McNally’s pedigree and unfathomably blogger hype. Just skip it and head a few blocks North to Motorino, or better yet, across town to Donatella.

Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Donatella: This Glamazon Knows How to Cook

Donatella is the newest cog in celebrity chef Donatella Arpaia’s ever-expanding empire. With a starring role on the Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef, frequent judging gigs on Iron Chef America, a shmancy new cookbook, a beloved meatball stand, and now Donatella, Arpaia and her PR team are busy people. Very busy people.

Glittering on an otherwise pedestrian block of 8th avenue in Chelsea, Donatella is sleek. Tucked into a deceptively small storefront, the trendy pizzeria seems to expand backwards, growing from a charming bar area to an almost cavernous and luminous back room. Soft golden light showers everything in a flattering glow, from the chic and youthful clientele to the pristine oversized black-and-white ‘vintage’ maps of Italy lining the walls to the good-looking and always smiling all-male staff, contemporary racks of wine bottles curving around the bar, and shiny honey-colored floor. Donatella blends charming rusticity with Arpaia’s now recognizably shimmering and fashionable New York aesthetic (undoubtedly artfully created by her publicity team).

With a menu completely developed and prepared by Donatella herself, the rustic and soulful Italian food is nothing lifechanging, but it is hearty, warm, and damn tasty. The neapolitan pizza is well-made with an addictive chewy, fluffy and slightly charred crust and fresh fillings (the spicy sausage and mozzarella Diavola is the best) that are gooey in the center of the pie. It is so good that even my pizza-averse boyfriend couldn’t stop eating the leftovers. The pasta is thick and satisfying, with big, bold and delicious flavors; the paccheri, a square hollow pasta topped with tender braised beef and stewing in a savory onion sauce, is a must-have, and the lasagna wows with thin layers of pasta topped with a hearty sausage tomato sauce. Don’t expect fireworks from Arpaia’s traditional Italian comfort food, but if you’re looking for something that’s just going to taste good, keep you warm inside, and satisfy, Donatella delivers.

Perhaps what’s most fun about Donatella is that Arpaia herself is invested heavily in this venture as the executive chef and part-time hostess. In towering gladiator heels, the glamazon herself manned the hostess stand, escorting diners to their tables and accepting recommendations for improvements. You’d think with such panache and celebrity, the restaurant would risk being overwrought and overrated, yet instead, it simply sparkles.

Perfect For: little fried bites and cocktails, pizza fanatics, date night, ladies night, celebrity sightings, Food Network fans, bar snacks, out and about in the gayborhood

Donatella on Urbanspoon

Cacio e Vino: Why I Love Italian Comfort Food

I knew as soon as I walked into Cacio e Vino, just another small restaurant on that strip of 2nd Avenue between 3rd and 6th with back-to-back casual eateries, that I would adore it, even if the food were mediocre. This cozy Italian spot is authentically charming; with a brick pizza oven burning away in one corner of the exposed brick-encased dining room and all sorts of slightly silly kitsch serving as decoration, you can help but feel warm and welcome at Cacio e Vino.

The restaurant is small and intimate. Simple dark wood tables are stuffed into every possible space and the worn brick walls double as a wine-rack, with waiters and waitresses reaching above diners to pick out their requested bottle. Finger-painted lamps shed a soft golden glow over the crowd, a homey cross between neighborhood couples and NYU students that are “in the know.” The vibe is comfortingly homespun, like the old-world kitchen of your Italian grandmother.

Cacio e Vino serves straightforward Italian comfort food. The prices ending in .95 on the menu had me worrying that I’d walked into a scaled-down Olive Garden, but the kitchen ended up preparing hearty and acceptable food that ranged from exactly what everyone one ‘needed’ to rather mediocre. A vast array of thin-crust pizzas are offered as well as typical antipasti, a selection of pastas, and traditional Italian secondi. The Arancini, saffron risotto balls, are reinterpreted from the size of golf balls to that of baby’s head and are stuffed with a savory blend of beef ragu and peas. Essentially, if you like fried things, cheesy things, and meaty things, the Arancini at Cacio e Vino is your nirvana. The grilled octopus was delicate with thin tendrils of meat arranged neatly with a tangy orange and fennel salad. A veal dish, comprised of small lumps of lightly breaded meat on skewers, was a touch too sweet to be enjoyable, yet showed a deft hand in the kitchen by avoiding turning veal breast into an over-breaded mess. The monkfish special was an alluring fish stew with an addictive tomato-based broth and well-cooked fish, a surprisingly refined preparation for such a comfort food-focused establishment. The pasta with wild boar sauce was simple and satisfying, heavy on salt, oil, and marinated boar meat, and exactly the sort of basic comfort food you just need every now and then.

Cacio e Vino is your quintessential neighborhood Italian spot, with exaggerated charm. The wait staff has over-the-top Italian accents that walk the fine line between laughable and intriguing; the dining area is so cozy that you almost want to change into pajamas and nurse a mug of tea; the food is hearty and heavy on the classic aphrodisiacs (cheese, chocolate, red wine, red meat), inducing a comfortable and welcome food coma. Cacio e Vino is a welcome break from the often over-wrought nouvelle cuisine at ‘foodie’ or fancy restaurants, and the ideal backdrop for catching up with old friends, dating, double-dating, and just enjoying good company.

Perfect For: wine-fueled conversations, cheese lovers, the cash-strapped, pizza aficionados, fans of al fresco dining, pregaming the East Village game, inexpensive decadence

Cacio E Vino on Urbanspoon