Thursday, February 3, 2011

Wining and Dining in New York

Bianca Neve pizza, La Pizza Fresca (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

A few notes on some wonderful dining experiences from last week in New York City:

I began my week with dinner at La Pizza Fresca on 20th Street in the Flatiron district with my friends Stefania and Filippo Rocchi from Tuscany, who were in town for the Vino2011 event to pour the newest releases from their Castelvecchio estate in the Chianti Colli Fiorentini district. I had heard wonderful things about this restaurant, which was one of the first truly authentic Neapolitan pizzerie in America. I was not disappointed, beginning my meal with tagliatelle con norcina, a perfectly cooked pasta dish with sausage and cream sauce. For our first pizza, we selected the Bianca Neve (literally "white snow") made from bufala mozzarella, cherry tomatoes and garlic. What a pizza this was, with marvelously fresh mozzarella flavor and a remarkable crust. Our wine choice was the 2009 Feudi di San Gregorio Greco di Tufo, which was a perfect accompaniment to the earthiness of this pizza.

Brad Bonnewell, La Pizza Fresca (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

For our second pizza, we selected the Savoia, made from porcini, pancetta, fontina cheese and bufala mozzarella. This was a great contrast to our first selection with nice weight and texture. Co-owner Brad Bonnewell, who cooked our pizzas, came over to suggest some Barolo with this pizza (you couldn't drink white wine with a pizza such as this), so we took his advice and tried two bottlings from the excellent 1998 vintage, which just happens to be one of my favorites. Brad brought over two special bottlings, one the "Vigna Arborina" from Elio Altare and the Domenico Clerico "Ciabot Mentin Ginestra". Both are quite powerful with the Clerico being a bit more approachable, given its more supple tannins. Both worked marvelously with the pizza and my great thanks to Brad for suggesting these wines as well as taking the time to discuss his outstanding wine list with us (yes, do go there for the wine list as well as the pizza - it is without a doubt the most detailed wine list I've ever seen in a pizzeria, be it in Italy or America). Thanks also to Brad for crafting such great pizzas as well  - I'll definitely be back soon! (Incidentally, if I didn't make myself perfectly clear, this is one of the finest pizzerie I've eaten at in the United States.)

Later in the week, it was lunch with my good friend Tom Maresca, a fellow journalist and Italian wine lover, who lives in Manhattan. I've known Tom for about five or six years now, having traveled to Italy on several occasions with him (I've followed his writing for more than twenty years) and always enjoy his company as he's an individual who is extremely knowledgeable and very comfortable with his status in life, a quality I greatly admire. 

Tom writes an entertaining blog in which he gives his thoughts on wines from the world (primarily Italian, but also some from France and California); every once in a while he writes about food as well (what is wine for, but pairing with food anyway?) and a few months ago profiled The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. I had just seen a documentary on Grand Central and thought it would be neat to eat in this glorious building, and by the way, Tom's prose on the array of seafood here made this place seem like nirvana. 

I didn't tell Tom before, but I did confess when we arrived that I didn't care for oysters, but as I had seen the choices on the menu, I knew I'd have no problem finding something I liked. Or should I say loved? I opted for the New Bedford Sea Scallops with tartar sauce and french fries and did I ever make a wise decision. These scallops were as delicious and as flavorful as I've ever had and along with Tom's selection of oysters followed by a Po' Boy sandwich, we were both as satisfied as two hungry journalists could be on a cold winter's day. We were tasting Italian wine all day long, so Tom suggested we try a Muscadet, which I approved, as I love the wine, but rarely try any examples these days. The bottling was the Domaine de la Grenaudiere "La Grenouille" from the outstanding 2009 vintage. Displaying excellent freshness, earthiness and a light minerality, this was an ideal partner for our food. Sitting at the bar made this meal seem just a little more inviting, though I'd sit on the floor for seafood this good!

Raw Seafood Salad, Felidia

Finally there was my farewell dinner at Felidia on East 58th Street with my friend Filippo Antonelli and his teen-age son. I've known Antonelli for several years and have visited his winery in the Umbria region, where he is one of the leaders in producing the wonderful Sagrantino di Montefalco in a traditional style. Filippo emailed me a few weeks before arriving in New York and invited me to dinner, letting me select the restaurant (what a guy!)

That's a great invitation for any big city, but especially in New York, and while I had literally hundreds of choices, my first inclination was to opt for one of Lidia and Joseph Bastianich's restaurants. Between them, they operate more than a dozen eateries in New York City alone and I've been dazzled by previous meals at Babbo and Del Posto. As I hadn't dined at Felidia before, that was my choice, which Signore Antonelli happily accepted.

I came in with high expectations and to my delight, every one of them was met and even succeeded. Naturally the freshness of the ingredients is quite special, so combine that with the amazing creativity in the kitchen (Fortunato Nicotra is the executive chef) and you've got the recipe for an amazing meal. Fresh octopus (polipo) and veal cheeks were tantalizing and perfectly cooked, as were all the pastas. Of these, the most delightful was the cacao ravioli (yes, cacao) stuffed with butternut squash and served with an amaretto cookie, which you could grate on top of the ravioli. What an array of flavors in this dish and how delicate at the same time.

The wine program is excellent (more on that in a future post) and the list covers the Italian peninsula with  great complexity (though not as in depth as the incredible list at Del Posto). It's always nice when one wine jumps off the list and for me that night, it was the 1999 Cavallotto Barolo Bricco Boschis, one of my favorite wines from one of the great producers in Piemonte. Elegant and supple with deep concentration, the wine showed beautifully with the meal, yet still promises several years of pleasure ahead. 

The service at Felidia was outstanding in every respect. The tables were cleared in an orderly, polite fashion and we never had to wait too long for the next dish. The front end manager was kind enough to warn us about the ice and slippery conditions outside, as a serious blizzrd was underway that evening. It's little things like this that elevate a restaurant from very good to outstanding service; you're treated with great respect here and who doesn't treasure that?

So a great few days in Manhattan, wine and food wise. People ask me all the time if I can make any money at what I'm doing and I usually laugh and tell them that's a great question. But I can assuredly say that I'm having a great time doing what I'm doing. 

Next week, more of the same in Toscana - both in Firenze and Montalcino. I'm already thinking about the first dinner!

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