December 6, 2010 | BITE: My Journal
Baby octopus with pancetta and garlicky bread crumbs in cortecce pasta. Photo: Steven Richter
Shea Gallante was just another chef to me. I ate once at Cru when he was making waves in the kitchen. I don’t remember a single dish I ate. It seems that early years with Pino Luongo and Lidia Bastianich entitle him to cook Italian. I’m only here at Ciano very early on because they were willing to assign an anonymous caller an 8:15 pm table after I struck out trying to reserve for dinner before 9:30 pm at a trio of new hot spots. The dining room is warm and cozy, with books stacked on a shelf above, huge parasol-like shades, old fashioned Edison bulbs, a real log fire behind glass, and servers in beige steakhouse jackets. We could be in some Tuscan town between Florence and Siena.
Crostini: chicken liver mousse; Dungeness crab with spicy sopressata. Photo: Steven Richter
The waitress is a bit tentative, granted. Perhaps it’s her first day, but she’s eager and agreeable. Then the bread arrives with olive oil and ricotta truffle butter. The crusty green olive chunk and rich focaccia taste fresh from the oven. I never use butter or olive oil on my bread but I’m wild about this tangy butter blend. I’m smearing it on, again and again when rock shrimp polpette arrives. I know we didn’t order crostini, but here they are, luscious with whipped chicken liver mousse, crab under spicy sopressata, and roasted peppers on tomato jam. Here’s our crusty arancini. Mmm. Lovely. That we did order.
Marvelous baby scallops set like a jeweled brooch. Photo: Steven Richter
The chef’s gift of veal meatballs, richly caramelized, nesting in creamy white polenta dosed with truffle pecorino is totally beguiling. The Borlotti bean soup, irresistible on the menu, with cabbage, fennel pollen, baby turnips and pancetta, is deeply satisfying. As is this season’s first taste for me of Nantucket bay scallops: delicately glazed, with hazelnuts, brussels sprouts leaves and a hubbard squash mostarda. Granted, the calamari frisée salad is just okay. Everything else so far has been thrilling.
Paccheri with wild boar ragu, sage and smoked pecorino. Photo: Steven Richter.
A quartet of pastas are bold and complex and winning too, especially the cortecce (noodle name new to me) with baby octopus, pancetta, chiles and garlicky bread crumbs, and the housemade casarecce with fennel sausage, broccoli rabe, plum tomato and pecorino. I don’t really need an entrée, none of us do, given our initial greed whipped up by many extras, but it seems only professional to try at least one. And the grilled veal chop would have gone barely touched except that the first slice is so tender, rare, juicy, full of flavor, a second slice is needed…just to be sure. And everyone is slicing away.
Sweeter than a steak, this splendid veal chop. Photo: Steven Richter
Yes, the kitchen is slow and time stretches on. The room is really too warm now. And I wish the light let me see the food better, but I brush these gripes aside. I’m exhilarated by the discovery of this lush, exuberant food - Shea Gallante cooking Italian with so much bravura. I can’t wait to return. Memories of that octopus pasta, crunchy with bread crumbs, and the miraculous veal, haunt me on my job for the next two weeks in restaurants with less imagination, less charm, less skill at the pass.
It’s cooler in the bar area just outside the cozy Tuscan dining room. Photo: Steven Richter
If I’d written my impressions next day, you, dear readers, might have rushed in and perhaps been disappointed. Because now I’m back just 17 days later. The kitchen still stutters and drags. And tonight the roller coaster of thrills is creaky. We’ve chosen a table near the bar just outside the Tuscan stage set to escape from the fireplace heat. There are no parasols, no Edison bulbs, indeed, no light at all. “We should have brought our miner’s lights,” says Steven, brandishing a flashlight not only to order or photograph but to see what’s on his plate.
Casarecce with fennel sausage, plum tomato, broccoli rabe, pecorino. Photo: Steven Richter
The cache of breads is as wondrous as remembered, the ricotta truffle butter as compelling. The veal meatballs are a hit with our friends, first timers here, who don’t notice as I do that the polenta is now meager. I need to taste new dishes but I can’t deny them the pampered baby scallops set like jewels in a brooch with flutters of brussels sprouts. My crespelle, meltingly delicate crepes stuffed with ricotta romana and spinach in a parsley, zucchini, tomato ragu, is delicious too, without fault but not worthy of the Gallante hall of fame I’m forming in my taste memory.
Alas, the warm calamari salad is flat and tasteless – my friend calls for salt and pepper from the kitchen in hopes of waking it up, but then surrenders. Worse, the calamari has been ruined by over-grilling. It takes a while to find someone to clear. Then we sit and wait. Finally, Ciano’s principal partner, restaurateur Stratis Morfogen himself, emerges with a waiter bringing bowls of marvelous tripe, shockingly tender, with house-preserved cherry tomatoes, roasted artichoke, parmesan cheese and frisée salad. “The chef sent it to apologize for the calamari being tough,” he announced. We’re impressed the chef took time to notice. And later, when no one clears, Morfogen picks up the empty bowls, saying,
“Tell me, was it worth a swoon?”
I would rather not be asked but in truth, it was.
We’ve spared you the naked bones. This is the lamb. Photo: Steven Richter
The tortellini are exquisitely made but there is so much cheese in the filling, I can’t discern anything else, definitely not the alleged sweetbreads. Filets of undistinguished lamb cut from the bone disappoint too and it’s bizarre to be served the sacrificial bones the meat was cut from on a second plate. (“Otherwise people ask where the lamb bones went,” Gallante explains later, “we want you to see it was really a rack.”)
A cook and sidekick emerge from kitchen to unseal the chicken. Photo: Steven Richter
Not being able to read in the dark, I didn’t realize our chicken for two would come with the breast baked in a sealed crock and the legs confited into small nubbins. The good news is that it is delivered with chanterelles and farro by an Adonis in chef’s whites with an aide riding sidecar. The breast is incredibly moist. The bad news: the theater of it takes too long and the sauce is over-salted.
Rustic fig tart with honey caramel, walnut crumble and vanilla gelato. Photo: Steven Richter
I could have called for an encore of Sicilian blood orange panna cotta, dark chocolate fondant gianduja with stracciatella gelato and the rustic mission fig tart with honey caramel and walnut crumble, but it is already very late and the stylishly eclectic and impersonal music tape has gone from Marvin Gaye to “I Shot the Sheriff.” With the check comes candy, passion fruit bon bons, white chocolate-coated orange blossom ganache, rum-spiked ganache rolled in cocoa and candied hazelnuts and candied almonds. That essential sweet closure.
So it’s best for Shea and me that I’m not sending you to Ciano expecting perfection. At this writing it’s like a wild child prodigy, fitfully clever with the genes for possible brilliance. I know I’ll be back. Come winter, even my friends and I may welcome that cozy warmth.
45 East 22nd Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South, 212 982 8422. Every day from 5 to 11 pm.