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Travel Tip: New York's New Italians

A handful of outstanding new high-end Italian options in the Big Apple

Owen Dugan
Posted: August 22, 2011

Note: This is an excerpt of an article by Owen Dugan, "Tastes of Italy in New York," that appeared in the July 31, 2011 issue of Wine Spectator.

At some of the newest Italian fine dining restaurants in New York, the food generally focuses on perfect ingredients and relatively simple preparations. These days, diners can expect everything from traditional house-made salumi to foreign dishes like lamb chops "en crepinette." But if you can let go of outmoded concerns like regional authenticity, you will find exciting food and wine lists.

45 E. 22nd St., New York
Telephone: (212) 982-8422
Website: www.cianonyc.com
Open: Lunch, Monday to Friday; brunch, Saturday and Sunday; dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $33-$39
Corkage: $50 for first bottle; $75 for subsequent bottles
Credit cards: All major

There are restaurants in which the stars seem to align. Somehow the decor, the character of the servers, the food, the crowd, the wine—all of it just seems to belong together. Ciano is one such restaurant. In the kitchen is chef and co-owner Shea Gallante, recently of Wine Spectator Grand Award-winner Cru, but who also worked for Lidia Bastianich (the other owner at Ciano is restaurateur Stratis Morfogen).

Beverage director John Slover has a fun innovation to wine service, in which any bottle on the regular list of 180 selections (not the separate reserve list of about 100 selections) may be ordered as a whole or half-bottle. If you order half, the rest remains under cork and is offered to other guests. Gallante's food delivers on every level. Recent standout dishes include crespelle with ricotta, zucchini, spinach and tomato ragù; and cortecce pasta with baby octopus, hot pepper and parsley.

142 W. 65th St., New York
Telephone: (212) 359-6500
Website: www.lincolnristorante.com
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $30-$38, Corkage $40; three-bottle limit
Credit cards: All major

Lincoln Ristorante was one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of the year. From the location, a striking new building on the plaza at Lincoln Center, to the chef, Jonathan Benno, who ran Thomas Keller's New York outpost Per Se a few blocks south, the pressure was on and expectations were high. The restaurant is coolly modern, with attention in most of the space focused on the open kitchen. The crowd is lively and grown-up, the noise, even without tablecloths, is never too loud, and there is wine on most tables.

There is a clarity and precision to the best dishes here. Opening salvos of grissini and frico and even the oil with the bread are notably excellent, as is thick white asparagus with speck, grilled lettuces and a sunny-side-up egg. The pasta noodles are perfectly made and cooked. Dessert options aim to satisfy, with tiramisu and panna cotta making regular appearances. One consistent strength at Lincoln is the wine. Wine director Aaron Von Rock knows his nearly 400-selection list very well. The list emphasizes wines from Tuscany and points north.

The Setai Fifth Avenue, 400 Fifth Ave., New York
Telephone: (212) 613-8660
Website: www.aifiorenyc.com
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $36-$47
Corkage: $60; two-bottle limit
Credit cards: All major

Ai Fiori is on the second floor of the new luxury Setai Hotel, a few blocks up Fifth Avenue from the Empire State Building. But the real attraction is executive chef-owner Michael White, formerly of now-closed Wine Spectator Grand Award-winner Alto, and currently building a small restaurant group that includes the luxe seafood restaurant Marea and his new casual Osteria Morini.

Ai Fiori is less strictly Italian than White's other restaurants, and the food is designed to evoke the Riviera—basically Liguria to Provence. That means the menu is essentially trilingual, and the wine list pulls together some 800 bottlings, most from Italy and France. Beverage director Hristo Zisovski's list ranges far in France and Italy, with 60 half-bottles, 55 Champagnes and sparkling wines and some values too.

The food is similarly ambitious and mostly excellent: A first course of Mediterranean house-cured sardines with a chick pea-fennel salad and amazing tomato confit was a knockout, balancing briny, sweet, fresh flavors. Agnolotti are perfectly made and the thicker-than-usual noodle encases sweet veal. Lamb chops are offered "en crepinette"—in this case wrapped in caul fat containing a forcemeat with foie gras before being cooked. Desserts, by ascendant pastry chef Robert Truitt, are a must at Ai Fiori.

200 Fifth Ave., New York
Telephone: (212) 229-2560
Website: www.eatalyny.com
Open: Daily, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

It sounds crazy at first: opening a 50,000-square-foot Italian food theme park, a combination grocer and food hall, complete with stand-alone restaurants, café, a mozzarella puller, wine store, bread oven and more. On prime Manhattan real estate. In a bad economy. And yet that is exactly what Lidia and Joe Bastianich, Mario Batali and their partner Oscar Farinetti—the Italian who started the first such store in Turin—did. And by all appearances, they have succeeded.

People wander slowly here, looking over the pastry selection, the wall of jams and jellies, the chocolates, checking out what someone is eating at the barlike fish restaurant Pesce, or getting a glass of wine to sip while they shop. They've even installed a beer garden on the roof. Eataly's wine store, with a separate entrance, is small but well-stocked, offering nearly 600 selections. Most of them are served at the restaurants, too, though Manzo, below, has a separate list.

Telephone: (212) 229-2180
Open: Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost: Entrées $29-$45
Credit cards: All major

Manzo is the most enclosed of the dining spots at Eataly, and offers the comforts and relative quiet of a restaurant; heck, it even takes reservations. The concept is Italian preparations of American meats, but there are fish, fowl and even vegetarian items sprinkled through the menu.

The wine list has some 750 selections from all over Italy and at all price points. Staff members are knowledgeable and helpful, especially with the wine. Pastas include an honest and pristine rendition of agnolotti with brown butter, the whole thing apparently simple and very rewarding. A veal chop smoked in hay looks like something from a medieval theme party. The rib eye is another attention-getter, the meat rich and sweet, served with pommes soufflés. The crust on the steak has a funky, almost smoky and salty flavor from being rubbed with dried Gorgonzola. Manzo may be a small part of this circus, but the food, service and wine list command attention. And remember, you can buy most of the food to take home.

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