May 12, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Cacio e Vino: Salvatore Does It His Way

Salvatore Fraterrigo channels his Sicily childhood at Caci e Vino. Photo: Steven Richter
Salvatore Fraterrigo channels his Sicily childhood at Caci e Vino. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our devoutly dedicated eater pal on the Lower East Side had emailed a while back that I should check out Cacio e Vino.  He thought the Road Food Warrior and I would love the pizzas and the reasonable prices, although it would cost us $40 round trip to get there if we rode yellow (as we tend to do if it’s rainy or snowy or humid or simply because after a dozen years of psychotherapy I have come to believe “I deserve it”).

        But it was word of a new chef at the range that finally brought us downtown. Steven and I have followed Salvatore Fraterrigo’s path since he arrived here from Sicily’s coastal town of Trapani determined to create an outpost of Il Raddichio, the charming and ambitious ristorante on Sicily’s eastern coast we loved during our five weeks criss-crossing that island. Alas, a few years ago while he was scrutinizing New York City real estate, his wife back home also had roving eyes. The two split and are still arguing for custody of Il Raddichio. But like so many Sicilians before him, Fraterrigo has found a new island – Manhattan – where he talks of moving to his own place soon.

Tonight, it’s a double date with Tom from dinner at Ko, introducing Steven and Mari. Photo: Steven Richter

        Salvatore’s Sicilian table is mostly inspired by the taste of Palermo and seaside Trapani where he was born – sardines rolled and stuffed to look like birds, a luscious outsize arancino of saffron rice, stuffed calamari, most of it decked out with upscale airs, rivulets of sauce, polka dots, and balsamic slashes that look like the art-directed photos in his cookbook – displayed on the bar at Cacio e Vino. He may emerge from the kitchen to show you the exact illustration at the drop of a sardine.

More is more on this beautiful bubbled up origanata Siciliana pizza. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Most of the crowd seems to be here for the marvelous wood-burning brick oven pizzas spouting Sicilian products in 18 variations by partner Alesssandro Ancona (ex-Mezzogiorno). There is a roster of Sicilian flatbreads too (schiacciate) and Sicilian stuffed calzones, but the pies seem to be the prize.  They are rich, dense and frou frou’d along the edge with big scorched bubbles you can’t resist, as in the “Origanata Siciliana” we’re sharing – with slivered red onion slices, anchovies, caciocavallo cheese and oregano, on a coat of tomato sauce. Around us, pizza fans dividing a standard 12 incher ($11 to $17), or the bigger 16-inch beauty ($16 to $24) are often local refugees from the long line at Luzzo’s on First Avenue.

        Given the buzz that Fraterrigo has taken over the kitchen, Italians flock too.  They’re here for the sardines a beccafico (with sweet and sour onions, bread crumbs, pine nuts, raisins and orange jest), for the arancino – a bowling ball stuffed with saffron risotto, beef ragu and peas in tomato sauce, and the classic cioppino with garlicky croutons.  Tonight the calamari, handsomely decked out with sautéed zucchini and mint sauce, is strangely tough but my grilled marinated octopus is prefect.

Pasta baked under a crust. Photo: Steven Richter
caponata is not the toss of sweet and sour eggplant with onions, toasted pine nuts and raisins New Yorkers expect and I’m afraid not even the chef’s goat cheese filled chickpea fritters make up for the caponata’s missing pine nut crunch. And the bucatini con sarde Italian friends have raved about is wildly over-sauced with too many bread crumbs melted into a sodden mud.

        Still, all of us love the twisted pasta busiate with its savory Trapanese pesto (fresh basil, garlic, almond and tomato) and the pappardelle with duck confit ragu. And the real triumph is aneletti alla Palemitana that the chef himself carries from the kitchen to the pizza oven in its big terra cotta dish sealed with a thin layer of dough. It hits the table crowned with a tall bready puff. The waiter tamps down the browned bubble with a fresh napkin and peels away the crust to reveal small pasta rings in a molten ragu of beef, peas, eggplant and basil with mozzarella and pecorino cheese. Too hot to eat at first, I rip off bits of bread to scoop up the sauce, then reluctantly pass it along. Tom Dobrowski, my Craigslist date last week at Ko, joining us tonight with a beauty from Norway, seems poised to devour it and reluctantly passes it on to Steven.

Marzipan lovers’ cassata. Photo: Steven Richter

        Five weeks of Sicilian pastry sampling almost exhausted my passion for marzipan, but now it’s revived.  I love Salvatore’s bold neon green Cassata, made with sheeps’ milk ricotta, sweet orange and almond paste - though he must stop sprinkling confectioner’s sugar willy-nilly, a tacky twitch left over from the fussy 90’s. Marzipan-haters will be happy enough with his semifreddo al torrone -- caramel, pistachio and just a touch of almond. And yes, it’s a wine bar too, although clearly that’s not what lured us. My cheap glass of that Sicilian grape, Nero d’Avola, was transporting too, bringing back the astonishing Spring that I discovered that grape…and Sicily.

80 Second Avenue between 4th and 5th Streets. 212 228 3269 



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