By Christopher A. Pape
For Italians ingredients are the key to a successful meal. Without the freshest, highest-quality produce and meats, the meal will inevitably fail. Whether or not Italian chefs follow the strictest recipe or technique is of little or no concern, but rather their dish should be delicious and bring a smile to the people who are eating it. Recently Resident colleagues and I embarked on a journey to two famous Italian restaurants to test this theory; and what we found is sure to prod you into visiting them. We know that you will leave with a full and satisfied stomach.
Owned by the Maccioni family of Le Cirque fame, the restaurant offers upscale Italian fare built upon a foundation of signature Tuscan recipes under the direction of Executive Chef Michael Galata. The menu is served in a lively, sophisticated setting reminiscent of the old-style European circus tents which inspired the restaurant’s name and for which the family has become synonymous.
On our visit to the restaurant, we were struck by the charming interior and delicious food. True to its name the restaurant has bright blue circus rings suspended with gold stars, sculptures of monkeys swinging overhead, playful clowns dancing above the open kitchen and a ceiling hung with tapestries - all to reinforce the vibrant circus theme.
And the food is just as effervescent! Balancing classic Tuscan dishes and more contemporary seasonal offerings, Circo is a treasure for New Yorker and visitor alike. There were many dishes that we loved, but a few were standouts. We were enthralled by the Polpo alla Brace – grilled octopus with fennel, artichoke, tomato and a pine nut salad with basil vinaigrette. The flesh was tender and smoky with the tomato and vinaigrette adding needed acidity. Pastas abound and a knockout was the Ravioli di Mamma Egi. Here it was served with ricotta di bufala and spinach in a butter and sage sauce. It was divine – tender, sweet and savory at the same time – a true masterpiece!
Located in the heart of Chelsea, this artisanal-inspired, handcrafted restaurant whose chic interior and hip staff draw-in large crowds is owned by Donatella Arpaia, the maven of food television and visionary of Italian cooking. From the moment we walked in to the last bite of food, we were in love with the restaurant.
Its appetizers were scrumptious (try their Calamari Fritti, Crocchette di Patate and Arancini). We loved the fried calamari, but the two dishes we obsessed over were the potato and mozzarella croquette and the fried rice balls. These two encapsulate Donatella’s love of the Abruzzo region of Italy (she has familial roots there) and brought back memories of my many trips to that beautiful region.
The pizzas were out-of-this-world, partly because each one is cooked in a 700 degree wood burning oven to create a pizza that is both soft in the middle and crispy on the ends. This is in keeping with the authentic Neapolitan tradition. We had the Rotolino with prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, Parmigiano and truffle oil. It was fragrent (from the truffle), creamy (from the mozzarella), and sharp (from the Parmigiano). It was perfectly balanced and it showcased the care and skill that Donatella’s kitchen is achieving.