Notes from New York Part 2: Ai Fiori, Zero Otto Nove, and Da Gennero

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fiori charger

Notes from New York, Part 1, included reviews of Chef's Club by Food & Wine, Gato, Boulton & Watt, and SixtyFive Lounge at the Rainbow Room.

The big "blowout" meal was at Ai Fiori at Langham Place hotel. Part of the Altamarea Group, Ai Fiori is chef/owner Michael White's to Italian and French Riviera cuisine. (The name means among the flowers in Italian.)

The restaurant is on the hotel's second level, overlooking Fifth Avenue, and has a modernly upscale decor — not an exposed brick in sight. It's quiet, subdued, and very comfortable.

The menu is decidedly Italian, but while there might be recognizable names, don't expect familiar presentations. The item under the Pasta e Risotto heading called Spaghetti, for example, features blue crab, lemon, bottarga (a fish roe) and chilies. Not your typical plate of pasta.

A four course tasting menu is offered for $97 per person, which gets you a cominciare (starter), a selection from the pasta e Risotto list, and entree, and dolce. We haggled with our waiter to substitute one of the contorni selections for our desserts, and he gladly agreed.

Before the starters, we were treated to a simple amuse bouche of parsnip puree with a bit of balsamic vinegar. It was modest and more notable for the smear of puree that ran down the side of the glass bowl — a restaurant of this calibre usually has one person whose only job is to make sure the dishes are pretty before they leave the kitchen.

 fiori scallops

For my cominciare course I chose the pan-seared Nantucket bay scallops, with a gremolata of Marcona almonds and little bits of lardo, or as we call it in America, lard. Bay scallops tend to take a back seat to the more impressive, and larger, sea scallops, but these were quite nice.

fiori octopus

So was my companion's polpo. The octopus was grilled and served with 'nduja, a spread made with pork sausage, grilled fennel and a potato roulade.

fiori nero

We had seen someone at the next table having the trofie nero and we knew one of us had to have that. Trofie are little pastas that look like tiny croissants and have a wonderfully dense texture. The nero is provided by squid ink. There were some scallops in the ragu, and it was all topped by spiced mollica, or breadcrumbs. Delicious.

fiori risotto

I chose the risotto, which had bits of duck confit and hen of the woods mushrooms in a marsala tinged sauce. Nicely done.

fiori lobster

Knowing that the astice, or butter poached lobster, is a house specialty, I made that my main course selection. The Nova Scotia tail meat was accompanied by carrots and rutabagas in a sauce made with wine from Chateau Chalon. It was delicious, and in case the part about it being poached in butter escaped you, very very rich.

fiori coq

Rick had the faraona, a guinea hen prepared al coq au vin, though in a manner much more elevated that the traditional peasant fare. Thumbelina carrots, turnips and pearl onions were all featured on the plate, and the red wine sauce was added only as a grace note, rather than as a gravy.

The vegetable side dishes were less impressive than we had hoped, though both the Brussels sprouts and pan roasted cauliflower with anchovies were ultimately better for us than any of the desserts we eschewed.

I was surprised that food runners consistently placed the wrong dishes in front of us, which tells me the waiter probably consistently wrote them down wrong. And I found it odd that two assistant waiters stood at the station directly behind our table and argued about who was in charge.

So that was the big fancy Italian meal.

Now contrast that to the other two Italian meals, each in a different Little Italy. Most people who have visited New York know about the Little Italy of Mulberry Street. Fewer know about the one in the Bronx.

zero otto dining room

Following a visit to the Bronx Botanical Gardens on an unseasonably warm day in late December, we strolled down to Arthur Avenue and chose Trattoria Zero Otto Nove for a bite to eat. (The name translates to 089, which is the area code of Salerno, Italy, the owner's birthplace.)

zero otto sausage

Here we had a veritable feast of sweet sausage, sauteed with butternut squash and dotted with bits of crumbled gorgonzola.

zero otto meatballs

We also had the polpettine, small meatballs served with wedges of polenta with goat cheese and covered by a spicy tomato sauce. Combine it with the wonderfully fresh bread and delicious olive oil, a charming bartender who served us the food and a couple of glasses of Chianit, and it was a much better meal — and a few hundred dollars less — than the one at Ai Fiori.

In Manhattan's Italian neighborhood, we snagged a couple of seats in the busy dining room at Da Gennero, just ahead of having to head for the airport.

Da gennaro pasta

I had a modest bowl of pasta e fagioli, followed by a hearty plate of penne alla Gennaro, the big tubes coated with red tinged sauce and accompanied by peas, mushrooms and salty bits of prosciutto. I thought it was perfect.

Da gennero squid

Rick had the calamari fra diavolo, and while the little ringlets of squid were tender and toothsome, the sauce was less than devlish.

Here, too, I loved the olive oil, so much so that when I was leaving I asked a manager what brand it was. He gladly brought out the gallon tin can to show me.

It was Crete. It was from Greece.

Gotta love New York.