The address that is now Zagara has endured a steady turnover of lackluster restaurants. For as long as I've lived in New York, it has just house one cruddy joint after another, but finally, Zagara seems to have broken the trend. It is nothing revolutionary. Precisely, it's intention is to be exactly that: an absolutely authentic, genuine, inviting Italian. While its website states its aim as to transport you to Italy's exotic culture, the menu takes you to Italy, but with a humble, elemental introduction. I DID feel like I could've been in Italy eating at Zagara, but the food is less exotic as it is honest, unpretentious and sincere.
In typical Italian fashion, the menu breaks down pastas, fish and meat, the former are intentionally designated Le Paste instead of Primi , portioned accordingly as entrees, although retaining reasonable price points, only a Risotto alla Scogliera, containing an abundance of seafood in a lobster fumet, surmount the twenty dollar mark. We both chose from I Pesce, featuring notably fresh speciments. Salmone Scozzese was simply grilled up with vegetables, drizzled with a lemony salmoriglio, which was a nice play on words as well as flavors. A pan roasted filet of monkfish achieved a wonderful sear, lightly crunchy on the edges and plated with gently sauteed spinach and tender cubes of potatoes studded with capers. So yeah, maybe it sort of looked a little like an Italian-style frozen entree with its uniform 'tater cubes and
thickened sauce, but it was really rather tasty... and it reminded precisely, exactly, transportingly to dishes I had in Italy, at humble little neighborhood joints. Nothing revolutionary, nothing challenging, but just simple, hearty food. I rounded things out with that classic contorno of verdure alla griglia, and this rendition illuminated the virtues of each vegetable except for the underdone brussels sprouts, which achieved some lovely cross-hatch char but remained just about
raw within. The rest was pretty much an exact replica of Italianate versions, something I ordered so prolifically when I was living there my then-
boyfriend used to tease me I would become an eggplant in my next life. If it used Zagara as an example, I could think of worse fates.
Since we were visiting Zagara prior to catching a flick, we ran out of time for dessert. The sweets menu features classics like tiramisu and ricotta cheesecake, but also ventures into more innovative territory with a vegetarian, coconut milk crema caramello with mixed berries and novel raspberry-glazed gluten free carrot cake- both which seemed a little out of place, but I didn't get a chance to judge futher than that.
I might not recommend a journey across town to dine at Zagara, but if you're a native Chelsean who doesn't feel like cooking or take-out (although they offer delivery, too), or in the nabe before catching a flick at the brand newly renovated Bow Tie Cinema (like we were) and need a place to eat, Zagara could be just exactly that restaurant.