Monday, December 10, 2012


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

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