December 5, 2009 by USA Post
Gooey Duck:Italian restaurants in this country have rarely fussed much about fidelity to the cuisine of Italy. But the process of Americanization that began at joints with names like The Leaning Tower of Pizza has now generated an ethereal new style of high-end “Italian” cooking that was never dreamt of in Italy itself.
Three New York temples of this Italic refinement—A Voce Columbus, SD26 and Marea—have Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali as their godfathers in creative cucina, and they spin out luxurious fantasies with Italian names and, in many instances, with ingredients linked to Italian tradition. Their food is often delicious, but much of it would raise the eyebrows of a visitor from Venice or Milan.
Missy Robbins at A Voce, Michael White at Marea, and Tony May and his daughter Marisa at SD26 all are competing for a shrunken number of novelty-seeking customers. Much of what they serve is more than just a turn on someone else’s ideas, or an extension of a brand begun elsewhere in town or in Chicago. Both Ms. Robbins and Mr. White worked there at Spiaggia, a favored Italian restaurant of the Obamas and just about everybody else who’s been there, including me.
The main casualty in the current Manhattan truffle fight is likely to be the Mays, whose previous restaurant, San Domenico, delighted New York diners for two decades with a gracious and skillful recreation of elegant regional Italian food just across from Central Park. Keeping the old place’s initials, the Mays moved with their prize-winning chef, Odette Fada, to a much larger space downtown, off Madison Square Park. It is amusingly ringed by alcove dining areas, an open kitchen and an open salumeria; unfortunately, gigantic supporting columns block views across the dining room and virtually incarcerate some hapless diners caught behind them. The portable electronic wine list is much more cumbersome than the fattest old-fashioned list.
Our meal started impeccably with hand-pinched little ravioli del plin, the Piedmont specialty, currently available with fresh white truffle shaved on top for an $8-a-gram supplement. The bean purée soup with crunchy farro grains was another winner.
But then the innovation goblin took over. Halibut, the king of flatfish, does not swim in the Mediterranean and has no ordinary Italian name, only the scientific, Greek-derived ippoglosso. Our halibut “confit” came to us slightly overcooked; smoked lobster was simply weird. Meat courses were, well, meat courses, distinguished only by a truly inspired couscous accompaniment flavored with mint.
So why spend serious money at SD26, when you can splurge on the cutting edge at much more-professionally-run and more-comfortable A Voce and Marea?
Marea, which means tide, is almost exclusively a seafood place, with a spectacular raw bar serving sashimi-like fish and shellfish concoctions of remarkable ingenuity. Thin delicate strips of lardo and sea urchin, however unlikely a pairing, were an unctuous treat. Chewy morsels of geoduck (the giant Pacific Northwest clam with the long, phallic siphon and the Nisqually Indian name pronounced “gooey duck”) had the vitality to match up with chili and lemon—a terrific dish that was barely Italian, even though it is listed on the menu as vongole, the tiny clams served with spaghetti in Italy.
We passed on the ippoglosso from Alaska marinated in seaweed, opting instead for a 2½-pound branzino, the authentically Italian sea bass, which was baked in salt just like the rombo (turbot) we once ate this way in Vatican City. It emerged wonderfully moist, but we wondered why Marea removed the whole fish from the salt and boned it somewhere out of our view, depriving us of a dramatic presentation. A roasted guinea hen was a model of a juicy fowl, sparked by a rosemary sauce (sugo).
Marea, the latest branch of a company operating four sophisticated neo-Italian places in the metropolitan area, occupies the former location of the Mays’ San Domenico. In a similar expansion into the old domain of another chef, the original A Voce has opened a second location in the Time Warner Center (which happens to be within sight of Marea), in the same space where Gray Kunz once ran the dismal Cafe Gray.
A Voce’s Chef Robbins does offer ippoglosso (halibut cheeks with clams, chickpeas and artichokes in saffron broth), but she confines herself most of the time to traditional Italian ingredients in traditional dishes brilliantly cooked and only modestly refiltered through her own zesty imagination.
Everything here tastes wonderful, from the house-made salt cod, a glistening, mild seaworthy piece of fish given a Sicilian spin with pine nuts and raisins, to the polenta punctuated by tiny black dots of ground buckwheat. The pollo al mattone, chicken breast flattened under a brick, was marinated in fennel and chili and garnished with Tuscan greens, gigante white beans and Yukon Gold potatoes. The large, juicy pork chops preened against a lush background of roasted abalone (miraculously not identified as orecchia marina), mushrooms, arugula and—that Sicilian touch again—grilled lemons. Dessert was a bread pudding flavored, like so much here, with a balm of citrus.
The room at Marea is on the noisy side. We can’t promise that Jackie Mason will be dining there every night, but we can wish you the luck of landing server 44, aka Krista L.—informed, quick to get on your wavelength, eager to defend you in the kitchen.
So we’re very glad here in New York County to have these talented folks from Illinois playing clever games with Italian food. Now we’re wondering what our most gifted culinary transplant from Missouri will do with the food of Rome. Danny Meyer (Union Square Cafe, Eleven Madison Square) has just opened Maialino in the Gramercy Park Hotel, in a space that recently harbored the neo-Chinese fiasco Wakiya. Will he really serve that legendary Roman specialty rigatoni alla pajata—corrugated tube pasta stuffed with the milk-filled intestine of unweaned calves? Il Tutto New York will soon find out.
—Ray welcomes emails at firstname.lastname@example.org; however, due to volume, he can’t reply to individual requests for dining recommendations.
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