334 Lexington Avenue, Murray Hill, New York, NY
Review by Diana, Wraith6, Susu, MaceVindaloo
Not so long ago in New York City, Italian food meant a family-run place with a variable quality of red sauce on watery spaghetti. The better places boiled up your spaghetti when it was ordered, but on the whole, it was big vats of stuff served up cheaply and plentifully. It was the type of place you could rely on a certain quality of food and service, and it was safe to bring the kids and parents for a birthday party. Also, you travel to the "Italian area" of town to get the best stuff, or something special that you must have on your special day.
Nowadays, "Italian food" has amalgamated with the American experience, and spaghetti is served ubiquitously, along with huge meatballs with too much filler, lasagnes you can buy frozen to put into the oven, or maybe the tricolore salad is the local diner fare. Or you go to one of those chains like Olive Garden which is about as Italian as the local sushi joint. Not that they are bad, but they aren't Italian like they should be. The food doesn't sing!
In a midtown neighborhood, half in the basement of an old tenement looking building, is a trompe l'oiel of green beans, with a sculpture of fava beans hanging like a shingle diagonally over the corner of 39th Street and Lexington Avenue. Several of us had passed by en route from work or school or church or wherever and thought about going in, but never had the chance. Finally, at a post-work gathering, we decided to leave a bit early because the gathering had not served dinner or even snacks (as they were supposed to!), and one of us had the presence of mind to recall we were not far from this place all of us had talking about wanting to try.
It started off badly. The hostess offered us a table which in this narrow space would have required the group of us to block access. She told us to check our coats and such to reduce our width, but it was just a bad idea. One of us wanted to leave for the uncomfortable situation, but a waiter saw the problem and offered us a corner table at the front of the place which fit our group better and required us to block the one central accessway less. No matter how thick or thin you are, it was just a crowded fit, and groups larger than two really did need to sit at the front or back of the space.
Bread and water came, as did drinks, and we ordered. The specials looked very good, and included things like osso buco veal shanks braised in a chunky vegetable sauce; sea bass, cannoli baked in bechamel and served with bolognese sauce. We also saw a plate of pan-roasted portobellos with shaved garlic, and the hilariously named "Occhi di Lupo con Broccoli di Rape" which translates literally as "Eye of the Wolf with Broccoli Rabe." Occhi di Lupo is and large tubular pasta, by the way! There were also raviolis, and as is traditional in Italian banquets, antipasti, primi (pastas, vegetables), insalati, secondi (fish, meat), and dolce (desserts), and they all looked very good on paper.
The food did take a while to come out, which is not a bad sign. It normally means that they are cooking to order, and what's 15 or 20 minutes if the food is worth the wait? At home, you'd take longer to make up these dishes. There was bread and butter to help with the hunger pangs, and we ended up eating all of it. It's unusual for an Italian place to bring out butter these days, instead of olive oil, but we guess they decided there were enough requests for butter and they were tired of explaining about the bread and olive oil thing. There was nothing outstanding about the bread, but you will want to ask for more when the main courses come out.
We're happy to report that the food was certainly worth the wait! The dishes were all plentiful enough for sharing and for savoring. The pastas were cooked well and in the case of the paparadelli under the osso buco, seemed to be fresh pasta. The canneloni was sheets of pasta, rather than tubes which you may find elsewhere, and it wasn't crepes, either! (It was reported that many Italian eateries resorted to crepes for manicotti and other stuffed tube dishes because it was easier, but crepes are not pasta, they don't even taste or feel the same!) The sauces were not excessive, but there was enough, and it was tasty enough that you'll want to sop it up with some bread. Extra pepper and parmesan were offered on serving, of course, and you could ask for more as you dug into your meal. The latter was not shaved at the table, but seemed freshly grated out-of-site of the diners (it wasn't "shakeycheese" from the cardboard container). We all left our plates absolutely clean before we'd let the waiter take them away!
The specials for the day listed strawberries in zabaglione, and as we'd stuffed ourselves, we thought it sounded perfect for a meal ender. Alas, they had sold out of the special dessert, and we were not capable of thinking about trying the tiramisu or cheesecake instead. So we had coffee (which was bitter) and congratulated one another for "discovering" this was a great place, after all. We even forgave the skinny hostess who tried to fit our not-so-skinny party in the middle of the restaurant and who made us want to leave (even though she didn't apologize and she never even so much as looked at us for the rest of the evening). The waiter and waitress were perfectly nice and attentive to our emptying water glasses and questions thereafter.
Of course, we passed on our grateful compliments to the chef, and we were told, "He will not come out, that's not his style, but be assured he will appreciate your comments!" It's kind of refreshing in this day and age of celebrity-seeking chefs to have one who is still shy and/or anti-social.
Oh, did you notice the dishes? They aren't actually "worn" ... like the beans painted on the side of the building, these are a trompe l'oeille, designed to look like aged pottery. It was very cute, and it added to our experience. Now that we know, we don't intend to be pushed around by the hostess and we won't ever be craving those chain places, ever!
Fagiolini trompe l'oiel photo from www.fagiolini.com
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