In another brief incarnation, this low-slung molded-plaster cave on East 60th Street was an Alpine ski hut, the less-than-adored Stamperl. Not for Joseph Santo such a compromising position. Oral surgeon turned restaurateur (Sign of the Dove
), Dr. Santo can read the pulse of this hungry town. He couldn’t help notice that suddenly New Yorkers are happily fixated on Eating American. With the flip of a Navajo rug, a cactus sketch here, a slab of petrified wood there, the Austrian chalet becomes Arizona 206
. The blue-corn tortilla succeeds the lumpen nockerl, and a whipped-cream obsession surrenders to salsa and the jalapeno.
The menu was dreamed up by a trio of California expatriates – chef Brendan Walsh and his second, Carrie Matthews, both veterans of Jeremiah Tower’s Stars
in San Francisco, and consultant Clark Wolf, Napa Valley marketing pioneer. They describe the cuisine as “high and low desert, with California, New Mexico, and strongly seasonal influences.” It’s a Southwest fantasy, what you might get in Arizona if you struck gold and imported a chef who got lost briefly in Lyons and is still a bit high on peyote. Jalapeño chutney and sweet-potato fries. Ravioli in ancho-pepper cream. Grilled salmon on a warm salad of radicchio, papaya, and jicama. The farfetched matings make you giggle. But at its best, the food is wonderful.
Arcadia’s celebrated lobster club sandwich has an elegant rival in Arizona’s lunchtime warm salad of lobster – each morsel a shimmer of spare poaching – fragrant with avocado, bits of marrow, and creamy herb mayonnaise on toasted peppery brioche. Pizza here is crunchy corn-flour disk with ham and sun-intensified tomatoes in a melt of cheese. And the kitchen turns out ambrosial fantasy “stews“ under unassuming monikers like lobster-corn chowder and venison chile – tenderest nubbins of the sea creature in a corn-and-chayote-studded cream, and grilled chunks of venison in a beady porridge of black beans, corn niblets, raw tomato bits, and sweet simmered cloves of garlic, brilliantly seasoned. At dinner, starters range from $5 to $7, entrées $15 to $18, and lunch tariffs are positively docile, nothing priced over $12.50.
But before storming Arizona, be warned: There are no reservations. The tables are tiny, unbalanced, and close. Not every plastered corner of the cave is comfortable, even with the ease of scattered cushions. The kitchen can be slow, even… very slow. One evening I got the distinct impression that the jalapeños were being grown to order. And the serving staff of young nomads (here today, Hollywood tomorrow) do their best, but it isn't enough to excuse a nervous offhand manner, water that never arrives, wine that takes ten minutes to deliver – wonderful American wines by the glass, some of them so tannic they put starch in your tongue. Still, diners who value fresh good looks and energy as much as competence might be charmed by the enthusiasm. “Oh, that’s wonderful,” cries the waitress as you announce your choice. “Fabulous. You’ll love it.” She herself is “really into the squash soup with red-pepper cream.” And why not? It’s delicious, too, a duo of flavorful purees marbled into a pale pastel swirl.
Pinkish slices of grilled lamb crown a nest of greens studded with artichoke heart and fennel. Coriander-haunted tuna tartare, ringed with a lively salsa – both to be scooped up with circlets of radish and cucumber or toasted croutons – is a concerto of flavor with a pepper hot crescendo. Pan-fried okra is heaped on sliced tomato that seems miraculously tasty for this time of year, and a small pepper stuffed with goat cheese and more tangy salsa is served with deep-fried chips of salsify that could easily become an addiction.
A California mentality dictates nicely dressed salad on most every plate (rich desert dwellers must fly in their own radicchio). But the vinaigrette that dresses ribbons of radicchio and jicama julienne with papaya definitely complements grilled salmon. Free-range chicken is moist in its peppery crumb coating with sautéed broccoli di rape. And zesty chorizo with sage-butter sauce and crushed tomato is tossed with corn-flour pasta.
The noodles are slightly tough. And for my taste, the salmon could be less cooked. Primitive chewy half-moon ravioli with goat cheese are not recommended even though I love the pepper-tinged cream. Pounded potato with crabmeat and capered, papaya’d sour cream is an unholy alliance that cannot be tolerated intellectually even though it tastes good. Another wild invention – sautéed sweetbreads under a crisp sweet-potato galette with bacon-confetti’d kale – is admirable in its vegetable parts, but the sweetbreads are tasteless.
At lunch, with the house only spottily full, the service is green but the kitchen is reasonably prompt. After pizza and that ethereal lobster salad (cooked to order, I suspect), my companion and I try just half of a squab (a daily variation on a dish that normally stars quail) – rare, mostly boned, edged with wonderful flavor – poised next to the ubiquitous plop of Arizona’s salsa cruda on vinaigrette-slicked field greens. It’s a tiny spa-cuisine portion, but only $7.50, and too beautiful to complain about. Sad to say, liver with crisp lardoons of pork and caramelized shallots on spinach suffers simply because the meat is not the best.
Star fruit and passion fruit sorbets are wondrously citric. And there is a chocolate-black-walnut cake, very sweet guava mousse on a flying saucer of a cookie napped with raspberry sauce, and pedestrian sweet-potato pie. Every say, there are wines by the glass – $3.50 to $5.50 – selected from a small but appealing, mostly made-in-America list that could use a few less expensive offerings.
Quite frankly, I’m not sure Arizona 206, with its fledgling crew, can survive feverish enthusiasm… relentless wave of goodies demanding perfect lobster chowder and tuna tartare. But if the house steers clear of arrogance and complacency, perhaps there’s hope.
Arizona 206, 206 East 60th Street (838-0440). Lunch, Tuesday through Saturday noon to 3 p.m..; dinner, Monday through Saturday 6 to 11 p.m. A.E., C.B., D.C., M.C., V.
It wasn’t so long ago that I spent three months tasting 187 pizzas in the name of professional duty, and for a few minutes I thought I never again wanted to experience the joy of pizza. Happily, in no time my pizza-philia rekindled and I found myself drawn to Pizzico.
Designed by Evelyne Slomon, author of The Pizza Book, the menu focuses on old-fashioned pizza in couturier sizes, specialty breads – homemade focaccia and toasted bruschetta – two or three pastas, and a few grilled meats, often arriving with lumpy and delicious family-style mashed potatoes. And Slomon herself is slapping the dough around backstage.
If only the room weren’t quite so glamorous. With its plum-upholstery-and-chrome chairs and sophisticated mauve walls, Pizzico may be contemporary Milanese, but here it seems suburban disco, too fussy for the rustic fare. Still, it’s a sunny in the glass-walled café, cozy in a big back booth, and intoxicating to spread sweet, soft chunks of garlic in olive oil on thick focaccia. Good as the prosciutto-studded pizza with Fontina, Parmesan, and sautéed greens is, it’s even better dipped into that potent oil. Clams, parsley, bacon, garlic, and Parmesan make a zesty pizza, too. There is also sweet fennel-sausage pie with mozzarella and garlic, roasted eggplant marinara with mozzarella and bread crumbs, and a lovely melt of ricotta and Fontina with wild mushrooms, roasted garlic, and herbs. Or design your own. The crust is $5 naked; extras run 75 cents to $1.50. And every day there is a pizza special: Chicago pan pizza in a beer-spiked cornmeal crust; deliciously fluffy “rustica” with soppressata sausage, ricotta, Provolone, and Parmesan; stuffed deep-dish pizza with two crusts; a rolled pizza that looks like a savory jelly roll; and sfincuini, meatballs in a double semolina crust. If you could make it through the entire week, you’d emerge a graduate anthropologist of pizza without ever taxing the budget. Pizzas are $8 to $9.75, entrées $9 to $16.50, all more modest at lunch.
The pastas and grills are less reliable, alas. Penne with Gorgonzola-enriched cream and ham is lovely, and fusilli tossed with herbs and fried bread cubes in tomato sauce has a certain appeal, but yellow and green tagliatelle are undistinguished in a porcini-d Bolognese sauce, and linguine with garlic seems timidly garlicked and very oily. One evening, the swordfish is thick and juicy, luscious in its lemon-parsley butter, and the zucchini torta is a stunning, crisply crumbed little “soufflé.” On a second outing, the same fish is thin and tastes less than fresh, the torta soggy with an off-taste of spoiled garlic. Best of the grills: juicy lemon-marinated chicken, or lamb with a salt olive pesto (I taste only olive, no hint of basil). Braised ribs are spicy, sausages a bit toughened by the grill.
At lunch, beautiful vegetables float in a wimpy broth as the soup of the day, but a sandwich as simple as soppressata with capers, red onion, and dressed salad greens is superlative, thanks to real tomato taste and spectacularly good bread.
Tarts here are homemade and primitive – super-sweet caramelized sugar pie with strawberries, rich sweetened mascarpone in pastry, berry-studded, too, and a clafouti that truly misses. Chocolate marquis on a puddle of raspberry sauce is smooth and intense. And chocolate cake is dark and moist but without much chocolate flavor. French vanilla, strawberry, and white-chocolate-studded chocolate ice cream from New York Ice make an aristocratic rendition of a combo kids used to call Neapolitan.
Pizzico’s staff has a nomadic cast, too – they seem to be earning the rent on the way to somewhere else. But for better or worse, personalities are not quite as unfettered as at Arizona.
Pizzico, 1445 First Avenue at 75th Street (737-3328). Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 4 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday 6 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., Fridays and Saturdays till 1:30 a.m., Sundays 5 to 11:30 p.m.; brunch, Saturdays and Sundays noon to 4 p.m. A.E., M.C., V.