April 18, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Fickle and Flirting with Fiorello

I prefer to choose myself from beguiling platters of antipasti on display. Photo: Steven Richter
I prefer to choose myself from beguiling platters of antipasti on display. Photo: Steven Richter

        I have a love-hate relationship with Café Fiorello. It’s my neighborhood easy drop-in before or after a movie.  It used to be a once-a-week affair a dozen years ago when the Road Food Warrior and I would split an antipasto plate – seven items for $11.95 and divide a $25 steak with fried onions and a salad on the side.  I was shocked one day to find a small brass plaque in the last booth where I like to sit, looking at a giant blow-up photograph, almost 3D on the back wall by my Steven in Tuscany. (Mea culpa below.) “This booth reserved for Gael Greene and Steven Richter,” it said.   Not exactly seemly for a restaurant critic determined to be anonymous, I brooded, even though our badge had merely joined a dozen other brass honorees, including the entire Sesame Street Workshop.

From my booth I can see Steven’s photograph from a Tuscan village. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now this well-preserved standby – old fashioned, a bit too bright across from Lincoln Center has become rather, sort of, how shall I put it? Okay, here goes. Expensive. Six antipasti are $26, entrées $28 to $50. The signature cracker-thin crust pizzas start at $28 for the Margherita, and there’s a $54 pie topped with a 2 lb. lobster, lump crabmeat, shrimp, mozzarella and a botanical garden of vegetables.  It’s vintage Shelly. That would be Shelly Fireman. I think of him as the ultimate Jewish mother. Every once in a while he comes home from a retreat in Tuscany, brain bulging with wild ideas. Neptune’s pizza is the latest. Too much is barely enough in a typical Shelly portion… most of the time.

Chef de Cuisine Solina shows off near-perfect clam, garlic, ricotta, provolone pizza with wild arugula. Alas, it never went on the menu. Photo: Steven Richter

        His minions have been toying with the guy’s philosophy in the recession, or so it has seemed to me. Now and then a portion gets wicked stepmother mingy. One evening, a year ago, the usual overflowing minestrone came reduced to a scant puddle in a giant bowl.

        “Are you kidding?” I asked a manager.  “Is this Fiorello’s?  Shelly would be deeply embarrassed.” 

        Silently, he took the offending bowl away.  A waiter brought it back heaping. That’s more like it. By the way, it was a supreme porridge of vegetables and beans, full of flavor, salted with a few gratings of parmesan by the busboy, our favorite busboy and I should know his name but I don’t.  When the house cut back on the obscenely expansive bread basket and started passing out a crisp and one oozing slab of focaccia per person (to pay for the bailout I suppose), the lovely man would bring us our own bread basket. (Once in a while we slip him two or three dollars.) Now GM is in the black and the bread basket is back, sensibly slimmer.

The red clam pasta is a favorite.  We like it on linguine. Photo: Steven Richter

        It doesn’t matter if I feel priced out from time to time when I scan the right side of the menu before consulting the left side. Fiorello is almost always bustling at any hour, before theater, after, in between. Lunch goes on all day. Certainly they don’t need us.

        I see tourists, Lincoln Center musicians, and friends who live in the building above sharing big rectangular pizzas and gasping the first time they confront the house’s special lasagna laid out on pizza dough like a Dali painting.  I was out of control in pig heaven myself for the first five or six bites and then had to stop. I hated myself for loving it.

One amazing winter $35 prix fixe offered three seafood appetizers. Two were fabulous. Photo: Steven Richter

        We stayed away for months last year and only came back for the Restaurant Week $35 dinner. But we are always greeted like family.  We are led to a booth, sometimes even our booth, often without having to ask or hint. Some managers send olives and parmesan chunks.  One manager throws on sun dried tomatoes, mozzarella and an artichoke.  The truth is, the two of us have been eating at Fiorello recently for less than $80 dollars. That’s with a mini-carafe of Nero d’Avolo and a non-alcoholic beer, tip included. One February night we got out the door for $58: a burger and red clam spaghetti. With the crisps and the antipasto freebie and two or three chunks of chocolate from the covered cake dish at the door, it seemed the perfect supper.

Raisin-studded chocolate giveaway melts on your fingers, making it hard to take three. Photo: Steven Richter

       Usually Steven starts with the luscious ribollita sludge, soupy but soupless, with kale and sodden bread and a shower of fresh grated parmesan. (We occasionally have to request the cheesing.) He can’t resist the red clam spaghetti – but asks for it on linguine.  I have a small portion of bucatini amatriciana (sometimes great, sometimes listless) and a $10 toddle of wine. 

Vintage, comfortable, maybe a shade too bright but you can talk. Photo: Steven Richter

       If we don’t order the sublime sorbetti – tingly citric lemon and chocolate like frozen midnight fudge – the kitchen might send it anyway.  One day I went berserk and complained indignantly when the giant sorbetto balls shrank overnight and the price swelled from $9 to $10.  (It’s so much like home I behave badly).

        “You’re right,” a manager agreed. “It doesn’t look good in our big sherbet bowls. I have to get smaller ones.”

        “That’s not what I meant,” I howled.  Now I see the sorbetti are plump again and the dish just $8.

Small fried artichokes alla giudea at $16, enough for two or three to share. Photo: Steven Richter

        For forty years or so I only had the antipasto – I would choose myself and hold a couple of $1 bills folded in my hand so the smart servers in their snappy straw hats would pile it on and often add mozzarella and olives to boot. Soon they could see me coming, and the sausage with peppers, eggplant parmesan, caponata, asparagus or escarole, maybe some potato pie, would become a mountain. I rebelled as the price went up. Then I settled for three choices at $16. I agree, it can be charged with salt. And I think sweet peppers should be grilled and peeled not merely warmed, as with the spicy sausage I love.

Cherry peppers add oomph to fried calamari and shrimp with spicy aioli. Photo: Steven Richter

        On the newest menu antipasti are listed individually. I tried a $10 eggplant caponata as a starter last week, easily enough for two, before my half order of pasta. It was sweet and sour and spicy with melting blobs of eggplant and puffed up raisins and bits of green olive.

The waiter slices a  20.oz bone-in meaty and rare Fiorentina at the table. Photo: Steven Richter

        One evening this winter we went with friends determined to order nothing we’d ever tasted before.  The house poured Prosecco for a toast.  I’d never ordered small fried artichokes alla Giudea, a house specialty at $16 enough for all four of us, greasy and delicious. They come with many lemon halves, each dressed in a tutu.  Cherry peppers gave a pleasant kick to fried calamari and shrimp.  We also shared the 20 oz. ribeye Fiorentina that lacked a steak house finish. But the tender outsize lamb osso bucco, oozing lush juices and flavor on splendid polenta, more than made up for it. The bruléed limoncello tart on a graham cracker crust that supposedly no one had room for was a revelation: rich and intense lemon curd with a crackle of caramel.

The mammoth lamb shank came on luscious polenta. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now for the obligatory confessions:  There is not just one Richter photograph.  There are three.  Two of them desperately need lighting. We got to know the Firemans many years ago in Pietrasanta, near the Tuscan seashore. We weren’t supposed to be friends.

        Restaurateur, restaurant critic, not strictly professional.  But he can be fun and fascinating, a devoted friend; his wife Marilyn, charming and caring.  As he spent more time obsessing about food in Italy, I could see Fiorello getting better. I’m a Brooklyn Diner fan too and make a detour to The Red Eye Grill every few months for the best Cobb salad in town, so big, it must be shared (although the leftovers make my kind of breakfast). Now the Fireman Group is an advertiser. It seems Fiorello and I are bound together like friendly ex-mates. Can see all the flaws. Can’t help loving the virtues.

Share this marvelous bruleed limcello tart with graham cracker crust. Photo: Steven Richter

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