February 17, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Rafele: Neapolitan, First

I never say scrumptious, but the topping of the “Rafele” pizza definitely is...
I never say scrumptious, but the topping of the “Rafele” pizza definitely is.

          “Meet my Neapolitan friend, Raffaele Ronca,” said my pal Francesco, the über Neapolitan. (You may recall Francesco as the Don Juan of seduction at the table: Click here to read: “Sex After Dinner for the Wily Gourmand,” but don’t get lost. I’m about to share Francesco’s find.)

          He had called to book me for dinner later in the week. 

          I’d settled in at home to escape the drifts piling up outside. “Where are you going tonight?” I ask.

          “I’m going to my favorite Neapolitan restaurant,” he says. “I’ll pick you up.”

          The streets are deserted. We hit the Village in no time. Rafele Ristorante is lit up like a theater marquee.  It looks huge. But inside, it’s long and narrow -- intimate almost, with a third of the space devoted to an open kitchen.

Men and their passions: Chef Raffaele Ronca is in love with Naples.

          “Well, of course, I am Italian,” the good-looking young chef in his flashy red epauletted whites begins. “But like Sophia Loren said: First I am Neapolitan.“ Francesco is already transported. We sit side by side at the tall table facing the kitchen: a charming stage set. The pizza chef never stops moving in front of the wood-burning oven, stage right -- slivering salumi and slicing pies for waiters to rush away. Behind an array of pomegranates, chestnuts and tulips, a team of chefs works silently.

Neapolitan pizza fritta with roasted potatoes, parmesan and basil is lush too.

          What would we eat? The two men chant a chorus on Naples, something between a De Sica movie and a travelogue, fantasizing a proper Neapolitan feast. That is, the chef suggests. Francesco cheers him on. Raffaele instructs the cooks. And soon we are sipping Francesco’s choice, an agreeable red, Aglianico Rubrato ($52). “Perfect,” he congratulates himself. “For the Greeks who planted the vines.”

The house offering is a bowl of voluptuous stewed eggplant with two kinds of bread.

          The kitchen’s usual offering is a bowl of stewed eggplant, saucy and voluptuous, to pile on excellent bread or chunks of the house-made focaccia. Raffaele also sends fried crisps of slivered artichoke, crunchy sprigs, sprinkled with Parmigiano and parsley overflowing the bowl. Impossible to stop eating them.

Small arancini oozing cheese and crispy sprigs of artichoke are a must for starters.

          His small, crumbed arancini are hot – hold off a minute -- and oozing cheese. “Lightly fried four cheese dumplings,” the menu translates. They are not like any arancini I’ve ever tasted. “In Naples we eat fried snacks on the street,” Francesco offers.

          Yes. I remember late mornings with my guy in Naples -- sharing mixed fried things from the grease-soaked paper bag. Rice cakes of course, but not as wanton as these beauties. Prudently, Francesco leaves a bit of the luscious fried pizza on the plate -- anticipating excess to come, I suppose. Not me. 

I prefer paccheri with octopus and tomato to this pappardelle with five-hour ragu.

          I’m ready to taste the paccheri pasta with octopus, Marzano tomatoes  (“from the volcano,” Raffaele annotates) and some very precious beans he has never found in New York. They are rare even in Italy. A 94-year-old woman found some in the market, dried them and sent them to Ronca. The beans are only for us, he notes, grating cheese on top – yes cheese on seafood – but anyone can order the paccheri with octopus any time. I like it better than the rather tough pappardelle with five- hour ragù Francesco is eating, but we trade plates anyway. I give up my pasta regretfully, watching it disappear.

The chef excels at vegetables but if you insist, his organic chicken with carrots is good.

          “The food of Naples is special,” Francesco muses, “because of the Monzu, the French cooks. From the 18th century when King Ferdinand of Bourbon married and they imported French cooks.” Do I remember Matthew Kenney’s Monzu on Mercer Street under the Guggenheim? That was before Kenny flipped out over raw food. No danger of that here.

How rustic can you get? Meatball, beef braciole and sausage smothered in red sauce.

          Each of us has a plate of meat – sausage, a classic meatball, some stewed beef braciole – smothered in tomato sauce. Rustic, primitive, in one thusand years it could only be Italian. I’ve almost eaten it all, when it occurs to me that this is the Village, not Naples, and I can return.

Raffaele does his mother’s Sicilian cauliflower with currants, pine nuts and soft onion.

          Just when Seventh Avenue South has developed a mean construction snarl at Greenwich Avenue, I’m urging you to find your way to Rafele Ristorante, quick before the town catches on and you’re standing outside waiting in line. Of course, you’ll want to share those slivered artichoke crisps and the sticky rice balls. You’ll want to taste the chef’s mother’s roasted cauliflower, Sicilian style, with black currants, pine nuts and breadcrumbs.

Tenderest grilled octopus comes on braised winter greens.

          Add astonishingly tender octopus on sautéed winter greens and a $17 pizza – that could be dinner for four. Of course, it’s going to be Neapolitan pizza, a soft surfboard, not crisp (my preference). But even so, the “Rafele” pie is excellent – Parma prosciutto, buffala mozzarella and arugula with shards of Parmesan.

          Sautéed scallops served over a fava bean stew make a fine starter on another visit. You might want to taste the puntarelle alla Romana, a winter green salad dressed with anchovy vinaigrette that I meant to order twice and twice forgot.

One evening special: Spinach ravioli stuffed with chestnut and ricotta.

          Not everything works well here. No one at our table liked the little neck clams oregenata with shrimp and salsa verde from the Valentine’s Day menu. We left a few and no one asked why. Hen of the woods and buffalo ricotta soufflé served with four-cheese fondue was unpleasantly rich and almost effete. (19th century French, perhaps.)

Linguine with lobster and tomato and a kick of garlic served in the lobster shell.

          Normally I like orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe, but the chef’s freshly made “little ears” are just too delicate to carry the weight of that toss. Linguine with lobster in a tomato-tinged sauce served in the shell, also a dressed-up elegance for the Valentine tasting, is good. And spinach ravioli filled with chestnut and buffalo ricotta would be worth repeating.

          Focused on the chef’s pastas, the pizza and his mostly remarkable vegetables – I like the braised fennel side too but skip the lumpen brussels sprouts – we mostly ignore entrées ($25 to $27 with a $70 bistecca for two). But one evening we share a small roasted chicken crowned with carrots and served atop roasted fennel. Not bad.

One evening the chef offers his ricotta cheesecake just cooled, never refrigerated.

          Does Raffaele seem to be a fanatic about his “cheesecake”?  It’s a sharply disciplined version of the classic migliaccio, made with whipped ricotta, minus the flour and the candied fruit. A gossamer finale. Although if he should offer chocolate ice cream made in house, say yes…we’ll have that too.

The best seats are at the tall table looking into the stage set of the kitchen.

          Of course, you’ll want to sit at the table facing the kitchen if it’s free, so you can get a direct view and perhaps a personal dose of Neapolitan seduction. If you come often, like the folks from across the street, tall chairs will be waiting.

Rafele draws fans from uptown, but the neighborhood mostly claims the tables.

          Look around you. Old guys all in leather. A family with a noisily expressive baby in tow. Millennials so shy they cannot look up from their eggplant parmigiana. A man in a suit and tie studying his phone, pretending his blonde companion is not tickling him with her bare toe. And yes, that was West Villager Sonya Sotomayor coming two days in a row a couple of weekends ago.

29 Seventh Avenue between Morton and Bedford Streets. 212 242 1999. Monday through Saturday noon to 11 pm. Sunday noon till 10 pm.


 Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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