Monday, December 10, 2012


We were duped.  We were influenced by a Zagat 24 hanging in the window.  Yelpers waxed poetic, stars were abundantly awarded with wild abandon via a perfunctory smartphone Google search in the blustery cold of a late hungry evening.  The place was sparsely attended, but it was... well, there we were.  So we ventured inside.

It is an ugly, ugly room that looks like they ran out of money halfway through the buildout.  Poorly applied Venetian plaster and Ikea-esque lamps adorn the spottily lit room, spacious as it is.  Roberto Paciullo is the chef in this second location of his, the first being the acclaimed Roberto's in the Bronx.  Unfortunately, if the original Roberto's is as good as "they" say it is, all he's brought with him from the Bronx is the area code, because Zero Otto Nove is pretty dismal on all fronts.

Except if you're just getting pizza, which seemed to be what pretty much everyone else was doing.  There were couples whisking in and out with their square cardboard boxes, and tables of families enjoying multiple pies.  We ordered a simple margarita, wads of fresh mozzarella melted into bubbly white islands in a robust, tangy sauce garnished with whole basil leaves.  Its crust was a thing of beauty, dotted with smokey blisters of char and a pleasant, pliant chew.  Boasting its own yeasty flavor, it carried beautifully its simple toppings.  A restaurant so sprawling as is Zero Otto Nove would be real estate wasted acting simply as a pizza place, but that's the only dish we tried that really justified its existence.

The leather bound menu reads like any typical Amer-Italian place- insalate, zuppe  and salumi.  We skipped those in favor of an artichoke antipasto, the vegetable quartered and braised and served atop extremely salty, oily hunks of toasted bread and scattered with flavorless, rubbery shreds of a cheese claiming to be taleggio.  But the 'chokes themselves were a little bland without that gluttonous partner.

We  also tried out a seasonal pasta: a rigatoni with butternut squash, peas and porcini.  The pasta tubes were well cooked, but the squash wasn't present in chunks, only cooked down and incorporated into a gummy sauce, sticky with a scant number of steamed (read: not that flavorful) porcinis and peas.  The "maybe we should've ordered"s were bursting forth as vehemently as the flavors were not.  

Forging ahead, an entree of baccala al forno came with a forewarning of saltiness... which retrospectively was hardly the problem.  The fish, in certain bites, was tough and fishy, the sauce a generic tomatoey sludge studded with capers.  Big wedges of potato elbowed their way in here, a bit floury and not really helping out the situation much. The humongous casserole could have easily served three people, though.  Speaking of capers, a side dish described
 as escarole saltato with capers was more like capers saltato with escarole, the vegetable and the briny little orbs almost in equal proportion, and making for strange mouthfuls.  As well, the leaves were not quite cooked down enough to tenderize them, so they fought the assertive seasoning with an awkward freshness, crying for a more delicate treatment.

We were happy enough with dessert, however, although I wouldn't make it a destination for sweets.  The list featured pretty typical Italian-ite dolci: tiramisu, gelati  and sorbetti, biscotti and the like.  We tried the most inventive sounding one: a (totally unseasonal- but then, none of the menu is) strawberry and hazelnut bombe, dusted generously with powdered sugar.  A tasty little finale to an otherwise desultory meal.  Which is why, my friends, you take your advice from trusted sources.... chefs, journalists... ME.  Not Yelp.

15 West 21st Street
p. 212-242-0899


This is the most unassuming, welcoming little Italian in a burgeoning stretch of west Houston street.  Quite a few reputable little establishments have popped up in this neighborhood of late, and Da Marcella might just be that strap that strengthens the camel's saddle .  Named after two signore named Marcella, native Italian donne born in the 1920's, our chef here is not actually Italian.  But I suppose somewhat like renowned Wisconsonite Michael White, he cooks better than a lot of the true Italians who stir pots around town.  Not that Francesco Mueses' cuisine is similar to White's, who is more well know for his fancified upscale spots Marea and Ai Fiori.  But in terms of flavor and soul, Mueses has embraced the cuisine of the boot just as passionately.

Open since June, it has already fostered a loyalty amongst locals.  Many customers arrive recognized by staff, ushered to tables with a convivial chat.  The room itself isn't particularly attractive, but warm hues and low ceilings contribute a cozy feel, and a flat screen suspended behind the bar spools classic Italian films.  The menu might at first appear off-putting: a calligraphied script of predictable-sounding red-sauce joint offerings, but any single plate on offer will swiftly put that misconception down.  In fact, just reading the philosophy of the restaurant on its website might inspire a wholly different conceptualization.  Lucky for us, it is that sentiment that is manifest in the cooking from Da Marcella.

Taverna Cucina Buona is how Da Marcella describes itself, and it is wonderfully accurate.  The food here has soul.  It is simple, rustic and elemental; it pleases like a warm embrace from a good friend.  Even a simple carpaccio of roasted beets with arugula and feta tasted thoughtfully prepared.  Crumbly, briny feta contrasted with the oven-roasted sweetness of the Thinly sliced golden and ruby discs are roasted to give the periphery a bit of chew, the middles sweetly tender.  They are fanned out and scattered with a salty crumble of cheese, plated amongst a scattering of fresh arugula.  We're not

 reinventing the wheel, here, but it turns smoothly, deftly. My favorite dish might have been the grilled squid (a special that night-I hope it is there when you go).  Sturdy tentacles of seppia are assertively grilled, such that the tapering tendrils achieve delightfully crispy tips, the meaty arms tender and succulent.  A dice of tomato mingles with chewy black olives and bitter greens, a warm,  garlicky oil anointing the squid, which may very well be the best execution of this dish I have been lucky enough to try.  I honestly want it again just one day later.

We tried two classic appetizers: funghi ripieni and vongole oreganata.  Bread crumb stuffings aren't normally my thing, and in both cases could've gone a little lighter in proportion to their main components.  The mushrooms were plump and earthy under a crust
 of buttery crumbs, although a bit too oily and the doughy breading somewhat masked the three cheeses and prosciutto that should have stood out more pronouncedly in flavor.  The clams were better- wonderful, in fact: hot little pearls of shellfish the shot forth a warm and saline juice when you bit through their crumby crusts.

Primi are unimaginably well priced, with most only $9 (I'm not kidding.  NINE.)  for a bountiful, robust plate of exquisite housemade pasta, hand-cut or on artisanal bronze dies.  Da Marcella's cuisine is focused in central Italy, which displays a harmonious balance between Emiglia-Romagnan richness and Tuscan simplicity.  We tried an hearty pappardelle al cinghiale that slipped the big flat pepper-flecked ribbons with a steamy ragu of minced wild boar in a rustic, meaty, tomatoey braise.  From this day on, as the temperatures wane, this might have been the most perfect,
 hearty and nourishing winter dish... were it not for the Costa di Manzo Brasato al Barolo.  A Flintstonian hunk of fall-apart short ribs was sidled up by a creamy lashing of mild yellow polenta, wallowing in a rich pool of savory, wine-enriched pan gravy.  No knife required: it actually fell off the bone from its own heft with the gentle nudge of a fork.   The steam arising from it alone is enough to make your knees weak.  Fortunately, it will reanimate you immediately after a few forkfuls.... this is why restaurants are called restaurants:  like the menu says, it is food to restore you.

To finish, the menu of dolci is classic array:  panna cotta, gelati e sorbetti, affogato, and our choice, a quintessential tiramisu.  Light as marshmallows, dusted with cocoa and luxuriously creamy rather than boozy, it is a superlative rendition.  It is hard to fathom that all these merivigli come from a chef who is not even Italian, although  the team boasts pedigreed backgrounds from Felidia and Bar Pitti.   And at such 20th centure prices: they could be charging two, three times as much as they do for this quality, were the service and decor spiffed up to formal dining.  But Da Marcella does not want to be a jacketed affair; there are no tablecloths or seafood forks.  Their homepage intimates a desire to feed their neighbors, wholesomely and familialy.  "Are we dreamers?" they ask.  Perhaps they are.... but I, for one, will dream of them.

142 West Houston Street  NYC, NY  10012

Sunday, December 2, 2012


It'd been awhile since I visited a restaurant for the first time and designated it one I'd unequivocably go back to.   Empellon Cocina is TOTALLY go-backable.

  Alex Stupak opened Cocina not long after his success with Tacqueria, but Cocina is a little more stylish... more entree-driven and perhaps slightly more whimsical, although I love Tacqueria too.  Stupak has a grand and unique style, exhibited in his food and the restaurant itself.  The room, sparsely lit with flickery candles and illuminated painting of a beautifully painted Dia de los Muertos-painted woman, exudes an electric, haunting energy, like there is surprise lurking around the candlelit corners.  And, as luck has it, there is.

There are many dishes I would come back for that I didn't sample this first time around:  I so intended to order the squid with black mole and sour orange mayonnaise that by the time it came to order,  I too familiarly overlooked it, like a misplaced object you look at so many times that when you actually need it, you forget that it's there.   I regret forgetting to get it.  I wasn't left with too much wanting after tasting the roasted carrots we got instead, though.   A smokey mole poblano countered their sweetness acquired by a long repose in a hot oven; yogurt and watercress jumped in with a bright tang.  They were pretty, too, studded with a seedy coat and nestling low in a
deep white bowl smeared eerily with a ruddy smudge.  So presentation plays a huge part here, like the big flat banana leaf splayed beneath gently steamed chanterelles dispersed atop a rectangular pabulum of mild, smooth masa polenta, then enlivened with a chipotle-Surryano ham salsa to bring things back up to speed.  Do not bypass the guacamole as your standard appetite-busting chip condiment.  Stupak's guacamole (we tried the pistachio version with masa crisps) is bright and unctuous, flecked with jalapenos and nuts, it almost seems whipped rather than mashed, its texture so silky and fluffy.   And the masa crisps themselves, nutty and hearty, but light, are tremendous on their own.   The salsas (all made in-house) are a rainbow of hues and run the gamut of Scovilles: they range from fruity-juicy to incendiary.  In fact, the hottest one (the Habanera) hits the
 palate with citrus and herbs... and it is only in its after-burn that your taste buds will begin to spasm in protest.  The salsa verde might have been my favorite, though, and also leaves your palate capable of sensing the rest of your meal.  The Tomatillo-Chipotle is a winner, too, smoky and robust, and the smoked cashew has a rich, creamy intrigue.  Order all seven of the jewel-toned lovelies and they might start the party themselves, especially if you're in a decent sized group.  Otherwise, they're fun to play with adding dollops to different dishes, although the well-seasoned concoctions hardly need your amateur adultery.  Go with the
melted Tetilla with shrimp and tomate frito and you might appreciate a couple spoonfuls of salsa the cut the gluttonously rich, stringy cheese.  Served in a searing hot cast iron pan with stacked tortillas, this appetizer is so hearty that unless your either don't plan on finishing it, or are sharing it amongst four or more, it will seriously cut into your main course appetite.  It's like a chewy, scoopable Mexican fondue.  It's delicious.  It is not on Jenny Craig.

Luckily, we showed some restraint leaving a generous amount of the tetilla unconsumed, because entrees demand your full attention (and un-full stomachs).  A thick Wagyu flat iron wallowed in its juices next to a pile of sunny yellow corn, more chewy than creamed, under a flurry of crumbly Mexican cheese.  Crisp, tender tamal fries  are another good receptacle for the salsas, and to soak up more of the
meaty drippings.  A slim filet of black bass lay moist and succulent under its crisped skin, augmented by tiny, crunchy chilaquiles mingled with black beans (which were slightly underdone- kind of
an undesirable kind of crunchy) and richly roasted crowns of
 romanesco.  Leaves of cilantro and rings of chiles compound the Latin flavors, and are probably the verdes component, which are traditionally part of the salsa of the chilaquiles.  But there was no loss in the minor separation.

Stupak's wife, Lauren Resler, stuck with her pastry background (Alex began with pastry at such esteemed kitchen as Alinea and WD-50 ) is in charge of sweets at Empellon.  Trying to decide between the myriad appealing options, we took both our waiter's and chef Stupak's recommendations for the
 pumpkin seed cake.    I suppose I was expecting a more pumpkiny, cakey treat, rather that the layers of pastry and a pumpkin seed-type of marzipan that arrived.  A brown butter sauce glazed the plate along with a drove of juicy triangles of pineapple and lilliputian dollops of whipped cream.   Resler's desserts have a haphazard excess to them, the plates frenetic with drops and drizzles, small mountains of cream and pools of sauce, but it doesn't diminish their tastiness.   I couldn't quite make sense of all of the elements put together, but there were delicious components.  And the desserts definitely perpetuate the creative whimsy that Alex executes on the savory side.

I don't know of another Mexican in the city that channels the authenticity of the original cuisine with such fireworks as there are at Empellon Cocina.  It's not surprising that the tables are full at prime time,  prior and aft, and that the chefs come here after-hours and bee-line there from out of town.  Empellon seeks to discover, interpret and share a love for Mexican cuisine.   Having discovered Cocina, I've interpreted Stupak's cuisine... and I share the love.