Full disclosure: in no way did I follow any chef to Matilda. Truth be told, I followed the pulse.... or Puls'd, rather: a Groupon-esque server that got me a bargain here (hey, I'm not getting paid for this, so cut me some slack). Anyways, a bargain so it seemed on paper, but the "coupons" stipulations made it really tough to order as I pleased. Our server, though, was probably as accommodating as he could be, and that pretty much set the standard for Matilda.
Named after the owners' young biracial daughter, Matilda plies Italian with Mexican for a fusiony sort of Tusc-Mex that hints at elements of both, but doesn't really succeed in elevating either (hopefully the daughter's future is brighter than her namesake.) Not that Matilda is a trainwreck; it's just not that exciting of a ride. The food seems dictated by the constraints of the theme, rather than inspired by them. In fact, the Italian contribution seems to be mostly in the nomenclature, while the food appears to be fairly exclusively Mexican.
The room is decorated in a somewhat gaudy d.i.y. mishmash with quaint pink walls and sparkly chandeliers, surely reminiscent of the little girl's bedroom. Inlaid tilework surrounds the periphery with a hodgepodge of Spanish, Italian and English words: sogno, uliveto, cuenta, chocolate, bambola... perhaps a few a Matilda's favorite things? At any rate, the menu is as eclectic as that selection- verging on disjointed. Nothing sings particularly Mexican or Tuscan, although the ingredient repertoire is indicative of such.
Wines are basically red or white, and putting too much energy into differentiating with greater discernment than that is probably a waste. Affordably priced, they still may not be worth your dime. Probably better off with one of their few specialty cocktails, or a michelada.
We started off with two servicable little tacos de mariscos- no Italian influence here. Swathed in soft, generic yellow corn tortillas, they were stuffed with well-cooked, chipotle-sauced shrimp and monkfish, crowned with copious amounts of cilantro. Tasty, but pretty standard. Chayotes gratinati sounded a bit more ambitious, and perhaps was too. A small crock of the cubed vegetable arrived slightly undercooked for its cheesy, chorizo-ey mantle (or else the topping was too rich for its freshly al dente counterpart). Again, no Italian here aside from the name: in fact, the cheese tasted like Swiss gruyere. The chips served aside are masterful, though. Very sturdy but still delicately crisp, they spooned up the squash without breaking... and without threatening to break your tooth, either.
We added grilled shrimp to fortify the insalata della casa, which was basically just a green salad with a light citrusy dressing, plated with five large, well-seasoned, slightly overcooked, shrimp. I don't know how to say "yawn" in Spanish OR Italian. The shrimp benefitted largely, however, with a dip in the oversauced lasagna de tortillas. Subbing out the noodles for corn tortillas, it ended up tasting a lot like t.v. dinner enchiladas- not horrible, just flat. The heavy tomato sauce drowned out much of the chipotle flavor, and the ground meat just gave texture rather than impart any robust, beefy flavor like a real bolognese (which is pretty typical for what I'm assuming was conventional hamburger-grade meat).
The most exciting thing was La Cucaracha! (Yay! Cockroaches!) Spicy pickled vegetables reminiscent of a classic Giardiniera, zipped up with a lot more peppery heat and a flourish of cilantro. Out of everything we tried, this was the sole dish that seemed to accomplish a symbiosis of the two cuisines, and ironically one which would probably unpleasantly assault a nine year old's palate. It also came with more chips, which cumulatively rendered dessert superfluous, which was probably okay, given the uncheffy selection of gelati and sorbetti, a chocolate cake and churros. From this one (admittedly limited) visit, my assessment is that they should probably just stick with Esteban's side of things and abandon the speranza of Maristella. There are too many great little Italians in this city to a comparative paucity of decent Mexican joints, and this could easily function (especially in remote Alphabet City) as a really decent, mid-scale neighborhood one. As the evening progressed, the tables were pretty much filled and the room reached a level of buoyant festivity, which aided the cuisine considerably. Mexican just isn't the same without a touch of fiesta. Better it would be to let the Matilda that CAN choose her heritage to stick with the Mexican side of things, and let little Matilda, the girl, be the one to flourish in her diversity.
647 E.11th Street NY, NY 10009