Thursday, August 5, 2010

Il Matto: Revisited

The term "crazy" is madly overused as of late. It has come to mean just about everything.... busy, excessive, stupid, disorganized, messy, or the superlative. At 281 Church Street, it takes on a different sense: aside from being the a play on the chef's name (Matteo Boglione) as well as his nickname (The Madman), the craziness here translates into a whimsical sensibility that permeates the restaurant. The room is spacious and stark, but riddled with a distracting rectangle of white and red track lighting, giving a slightly disco feel. An enormous mural of an abstract octopus, graffiti-style, covers the south wall, and an eclectic mix of mismatched banquettes, rough-hewn wooden chairs, and sleek, white plastic tables contribute a sense of playful schizophrenia, echoed by the flip-flopped font of the restaurant logo and menu lettering. The room seems to give permission not to take things too seriously, but once service begins, there is some seriously good stuff going on here. Opened by the very Italian chef and his team of very Italian Italians, the food is no traditional spaghetti pomodoro, but that doesn't mean it lacks sincerity. This guy is doing whatever he wants to do, which, in most cases, leads to laudable results.

The menu showcases a bit of artistry itself, scribbled with illustrative caricatures of the mascot octopus, seasonal vegetables and featured ingredients. A perfect example of Boglione's strength is a parmesan panna cotta, a creamy rich custard of pungent parmesan napped with a sugary crust underneath a drizzle of reduced balsamic and melty wad of carmelized onions... an unexpectedly savory concoction disguised as a creme brulee, which, despite its substantiative ingredients, sits rather lightly in its little white porcelain cup. It is a marvelously decadent spoonful (or four). Similarly, a soup of mozzarella di bufala is poured into a rich moat around a playful tomato granita. I found waiting for the granita to melt into the soup was optimal- if not, the icy texture fought a bit with the creamy broth. But once integrated, and plonked with a crunchy frittura of lightly crusted artichoke and a basil crouton, its a warrants an audible moan of pleasure (which one might actually hear too, because noise levels inside the dining room cater to conversation more than cacophony). But everyone knows cheese tastes good, so a wonderfully earthy croquette of artichoke shows he can do more. Mysteriously lacking much of anything to hold them together, the earthy green orbs are basically pure artichoke, with a slightly crisped exterior holding them together, partnered with creamy dollops of ethereally light ricotta, the plate zig-zagged with a brilliant sauce of saffron and summer truffle. Okay, so we haven't fully escaped the realm of formaggio, which again finds itself (this time soft pillows of fresh mozzarella) in an arugula salad with gigantic porcinis and more
truffle. There is also a hearty grain salad of farro, artichoke, tomato and pecorino, which is text-book healthy but also surprisingly addictive. Nutty kernels of farro (an ancient grain also known as emmer wheat) find fast friends with earthy artichoke and salty cheese, freshened up with minced tomato.

Main courses continue on their novel path. Gnocchi (typically made of potato), are formed from a base of pate a choux, which renders them the softest, smoothest, meltiest gnocchetti you've ever had. Granted, the nero di seppia that flavors them gives them somewhat of black licorice gumdrop-appearance, but eyes closed and spooned up with thick crabmeat ragout, you won't have a chance to make that mistake. Fazzoletti are big enough to warrant two bites each, and generously stuffed with more mozzarella di bufala, sauced with tomato and capped with half-moons of fried eggplant. This is another forte of the chef.... he, admittedly, likes his frittadini.. Not once did I get a sodden or greasy morsel, however, as he has somehow mastered the technique of frying things into a state lighter than the original (now if he could just fry away the calorie count...).

Secondi-style mains were hit and miss, although I hear some of these kinks
have already worked themselves out. The filetto di manzo (filet mignon) with shockingly undercooked, although the bone marrow sauce and accompanying spears of asparagus were perfect, so I'd guess a few more minutes on the fire would atone all sins. So, too, I found the Ventresca di Tonno, although I
assume that in this case it is more my deviant preference of tuna cooked through than the chef's error. However, this didn't hold forth as my favorite dish, anyways; none of the components appeared to have much to do with one another, too much fried (both the artichoke slices and the cotechino... I mean, really, breading and frying sausage??), although the eggplant cream was memorably tasty. There is a noticeable paucity of vegetables for my taste as well, where dirt candy is more likely to find itself battered or decorative, or surrendered as a sauce. Better (and more vegetabled!) was the olive-crusted capesante (una "p"... inside joke), with char-grilled golden beets and meaty
porcinis, and a tableside addition of milky almond foam smoothing everything together. I actually didn't need the olive crusting on the scallops, though, as it came across a little muddy, with only mild olive and more sawdust flavor, and the dish would be just as great (or greater) without it. Best of all, however, was the filetto di maiale: a fork tender cut of juicy pork (what am I becoming, Frank Bruni??) with a crazy good fonduta di parmigiano
(there we go) and juicier still grilled peaches. The pressed spinach salad was neither pressed nor particularly interesting; it could have done with a quick saltato in padella, or perhaps a little more time underneath the "press". Whatever that might have accomplished.

Dolci are limited, but fantastic. A few of the tipples from Christina Bini's ace cocktail program could easily fill in as a dessert, too, expanding your options. The Pasolini, a Cat in The Hat frappe of raspberry and ricotta with frangelico and brandy would contend any of the listed dessert options. That said, a molten chocolate cake was flawless, a syrupy, gooey cocoa puck oozing into a pool of milky cream. No, not mind-blowingly creative, but sinfully good. Better even than that, though, and probably the prime example of Boglione's skill and creative whimsy, is a millefoglie di melanzane: sweetened discs of baked eggplant layered with a vanilla custard and puffy nuggets of crispy almond brittle. Maybe this is where you make up for the lack of greenery in your dinner, when you can finesse a dessert of blue-ribbon caliber out of a vegetable. Which might seem a little crazy, depending on your definition.

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