Eating NY: Eataly Caffe, from the Batali/Bastianich Empire
Let me start by apologizing for the long delay between posts. It’s been pretty hectic here at the Choosy Beggars. We thought that once the wedding was over, things would slow down and mysterious pockets of Precious Free Time would start to delightfully appear, but that hasn’t been the case. Rather, life caught up to us a bit too quickly and we’ve spent the last few weeks digging our way out of a black time-sucking hole of work and responsibilities, trying to stay afloat and maybe, at some point, start to do our Christmas shopping (note to retail: please be open on December 24th, because you and I? We have a date).
It feels like our honeymoon was decades ago, but it was really only a few short weeks. During that time, I’ve prepared a good, fresh, home-cooked meal for us…three times. No kidding. We have become very familiar with the inside of a pizza box, and the freezer stock of sausages, pot pies and stews is finally starting to deplete. Perhaps that in itself is a blessing in disguise, but maybe I also just haven’t been channeling my inner-home cook because we’re still riding on a gustatory glaze from our visit to New York.
We ate a lot during those five days in New York. I mean, a lot. By the time that we poured ourselves onto an airplane to return home, the sweet brininess of fresh Atlantic oysters, rich musky truffles on buttered pasta, and b-list chili dogs were still on our breath. Although I do plan to get back to cooking soon, and sharing with you some of the recipes for what’s spreading out on our kitchen table, first we really must talk about some of the culinary joys that we shared in one of North America’s most iconic food-centric cities.
We have to start with Eataly, which is New York’s latest addition to the Mario Batali/Bastianich family empire. What started out as a casual curiosity turned easily into one of the most memorable meals that Mike and I have shared. You see, I knew that the recently opened Eataly was a mecca for imported Italian groceries combined with top quality local ingredients. What I didn’t know is that this temple of taste was actually a conglomeration of individual food markets combined with a diverse array of eclectic boutique restaurants, wine and liquor store, bookstore, housewares and small appliances, and even an area for cooking classes with Ms. Lidia Bastianich herself. I mean, seriously? And all that from a place which looks as unobtrusive as this from the outside?
We were expecting a little gourmet Italian grocery. We were NOT expecting 50,000 square feet of retail space in the middle of New York’s Flatiron district. We were not expecting truffle and gelato bars.
We were not expecting imported and house produced salumi and prosciutto, merchandised across from fresh, hand-pulled mozzarella di buffalo and snowy white cheeses thick with black truffles.
We were not expecting fresh, sweet fish and seafood that had been carefully selected that very morning from the Fulton Fish Market.
We were not expecting the Batali/Bastianich stamp so omnipresent, from the bookstores to the cured meats and even a line of wine, liquor and grappa.
However, the truest beauty of Eataly is finding a gourmet food market cum bistro extraordinaire in which you can perch on a high top nibbling on fresh rustic bread slathered with soft, homemade burrata cheese and salty olives before picking up your glass of vino and roaming the corridors of the expansive market. The ambiance in Eataly is enthusiastic and vibrant, just teeming and churning with life and activity. At times the atmosphere was almost circus like, minus the stinky animals of course, but that’s what compelled me the most; it was reminiscent of the bustle and fervor of Rome, which I far preferred to the austere beauty of elegant Florence.
When you’re at Eataly, after browsing the aisles and spending an exorbitant amount of money on yet another bottle of olive oil that you really don’t need, there is vast opportunity to either dine in or take any one of the ready made options to go.
Grab and go options include;
- Foccacia: pretty self explanatory.
- Paninoteca: you guessed it, that’s a panini bar.
- Rosticceria: perfectly roasted chickens and porchetta with drool-worthy crispy skin.
- Pasticceria: the pastry shop
- Gelateria: mmm…gelato!
- Caffe Lavazza: the coffee bar, which receives great reviews but I’m still thinking about gelato…..
For sit-down dining options, there is;
- La Piazza: a cocktail area with resplendent marble columns and high tops. The area is characterized by a stellar wine and beer list, and offers salumi and formaggi as well as fresh and cured fish dishes.
- Il Pesce: Dave Pasternack’s fish restaurant which dabbles in creative presentations but holds true to traditional Italian seafood delights.
- Le Verdure: I think of this as “The Vegetable Restaurant”, but not sure if Mario would agree. The focus is on fresh, locally harvested fresh ingredients that showcase the season, combined with top notch olive oils, cheeses and breads, among other things.
- La Pizza & Pasta: So busy that we never got close to the seating area, but managed to snatch a quick peek at the menu. If waiting lists imply quality, then La P&P is the place to be. The thin, charred, rustic pizzas that were emerging from what appeared to be a wood fired brick oven (although I make no promises on that) were…gorgeous; stark, honest, and beautiful little pies.
- Manzo: the formal dining room, specializing in American beef and Piedmontese cuisine.
Manzo is where we chose to have dinner. Okay, perhaps “chose” is too strong a word; it was the only restaurant that didn’t have a gruelling waiting list, so we quickly scavenged the only two remaining seats at the bar and got ready to feast. Manzo is also known, less formally, as the “meat” restaurant. Chef Michael Toscano, formerly of Babbo Ristorante, brings his nose-to-tail butchering approach to the menu, celebrating all parts of the animal with impeccable technique and his typically robust flavor profiles.
As soon as we were comfortably perched at the bar, we settled into the Very Important Decision of what to drink as we contemplated the menu. Mike, bless his heart, always lets me order for him, despite knowing full well that I’ll sample both drinks and then usually surreptitiously exchange for whichever one I prefer. To wake up the taste buds and get the appetite churning, we went with the Manzo Negroni and, in honor of our recent nuptials, the Bitter Wifey.
Being a Canadian, I am always impressed with America’s flair for mixology. Sure, our beers are top drawer, but watered down vodka sodas and margaritas fraught with ice pellets are no comparison to the bold and ballsy cocktailing that we see south of the border. We would be seriously tempted to relocate, but at least Canada accepts our sub-par cocktails (with the exception of the Bloody Caesar, our single greatest addition to the brunch table), but volleys back with things like universal health care and social services. So, there’s that.
After a lengthy perusal of the menu (and rather daunting wine list) we decided to do the Beef Tasting Menu. I’m sure that this comes as no surprise to you, knowing that given the option between tasting three dishes (an appetizer, entree and dessert) or six dishes, I’ll opt for the six any day of the week. To complicate matters, instead of us both getting the beef tasting menu, at the last second I opted into the Piemontese tasting menu….because if six dishes is great, then surely eleven is even better. Mike and I aren’t normally game for such costly extravagance, but we decided to hell with it. If there is a time to ignore cost and pretend that price point is just a euphemism for delicious, it would be on your honeymoon, right? Right.
Let’s start with the beef tasting…..
The first course on this menu was the “Taste of Razza Piemontese”, an appetizer trio of (left to right) carne sala, carne crudo and carpaccio. You can think of this as the Rosemary’s Baby portion of the meal.
If you’re a shoe-leather gray meat eater, this first course is undoubtedly horrifying for you. However, I have a fond affection for beef tartare so this was right in my wheelhouse. The Carpaccio was so tender that it was silky, reminiscent more of a veal loin than beef. A few generous scrapings of aggressive Parmigiana Reggiano, luxurious creamy lardo and a shaving of bitter radicchio with a drizzle of nutty olive oil perfectly balanced the understated sweetness of the beef. The Carne Crudo was perfectly balanced with a brightening dash of minced capers and shallots, combined with the traditional lush richness of an egg yolk (likely quail, based on size) and watery strings of enoki mushroom to add textural interest. Speaking of texture, it was sublime. The meat was finely hand chopped as opposed to some of the unfortunately gummy ground or pureed beef tartares that I’ve had in the past. Finally, the Carne Sala had a lightly saline marinade, sweetened with a crisp slaw of tangy green apple. Overall, despite the abundance of protein, this was a balanced and light start to an impressive meal.
The second course was light and pillowy ricotta gnocchi with Fonduta and Sugo D’Arrosto. If we pick apart this dish, we have an enriched cheese dumpling (ricotta gnocchi) lazily swimming in a pool of rich and decadent drippings from roasted beef (Sugo D’Arrosto), in a decadently creamy and custardy cheese sauce made with fontina, eggs, milk and white truffle oil (Fonduta). The flavor from the beef drippings is really what made this dish remarkable. The gnocchi were delicate and light to offset the richness of the sauces, and it was like eating all the best parts of an Italian Sunday Supper but in one small bowl. Divine.
The third dish was the one I was most hesitant about, not for myself but for Mike. When we were selecting the menu, this was one of the two wild cards that made me nervous. The calf brain lune with oxtail ragu just sounded rather dicey for a man who only eats oxtail stew if I pick all the meat off the bones for him and then pretend that it’s beef until he’s finished the meal. However, Mike is nothing if not a trouper so he dove in with an enthusiastic and open mind, hoping for the best.
What we got was the best.
Please, just for a moment, put aside that these are ravioli filled with brains in a sauce made of tails, and try to believe me when I say that this was the single most delicious dish out of the eleven that we tasted. Bar none. In fact, just a few days ago I was staring wistfully out the window, and murmured to Mike, “I miss the brains…..”
It’s no surprise that Batali’s pasta was perfect, toothsome but tender, with the ideal ratio of stuffing to dough (which I, personally, am far too gluttonous to ever get right). The lamb brains were delicate and almost coddled, like a gently sweet and loosely scrambled egg, but with the luxurious mouth-feel of fatty foie gras. Tossed in a rich and buttery sauce, the meaty tomato and oxtail ragu was meltingly soft and rich, just tannic enough with the tomato (and, I would hazard, more beef drippings) to add interest to the dish. This was the shining star of our meal, and a blue ribbon winner all around.
Also? With this newly found affection for brains, my future career as a killer vixen zombie has come one step closer to actualization.
The fourth dish was a beef heart and tongue spiedino with baby lettuce, pepperonata and horseradish. Alright, so this was the second of two dishes that I thought would Mike make tremble, but again he surprised me. I grew up eating tongue (notably in a homely Lebanese dish of braised tongue with bulghar which is far more delicious than it has any right to be), but I had never had tongue which was cooked to medium rare and still tasted tender. The caramelized exterior of these threaded chunks of beef belied the pink interior, which was tender and cooked to about a medium. Heavy, flavorful meats like tongue and heart both have a tendency to run tough and are best had in small quantities, but the pungently acidic but slightly sweet pepperonata (hint of tangerine, perhaps?) played beautifully against the thick meats.
The fifth dish on this journey of extravagance was grilled short ribs with trumpet royale mushrooms and bone marrow marmellata. Here comes my confession: the dishes just kept on coming out, between my menu and Mike’s, and I got a bit confused at times. This is clearly a grilled steak, and it was delicious with sauteed radishes and circled by a rich, meaty, drippings sauce, but….but I don’t know how the mushrooms factored in here, nor do I remember a bone marrow marmelade on the side.
Either way, this was simple and perfect, tasting almost more French than Piedmontese.
Dessert was a Dolce di Manzo, which had a delicious creme Anglaise but was otherwise not particularly compelling, balsamic drizzle excepted.
Now then, while all of these dishes were being plated and devoured, we had a SECOND menu which was simultaneously being served, the Taste of Piedmonte (sorry Mario, I tried it without the ‘d’ and is just doesn’t feel right to me).
The first course was Carne Crudo, the same one which came on the Beef Tasting Menu, but as a significantly larger portion and dressed with crispy truffled toasts on the side.
The second course was pappardelle pasta with white truffles and parmigiano. Oh, hey, did I forget to mention that it’s truffle season? Because my heart just started palpitating with joy. Or maybe that’s residual beef drippings pumping through my veins. Hard to say, really.
Pappardelle is one of my favorite iterations for fresh, homemade pasta, because the elongated thin sheets are perfect to display a delicate elasticity. Lapped in a creamy, rich and buttery sauce with lavish, thick shavings of fresh white truffle on top, this dish was both the simplest and most extravagant of all the dishes that we sampled. The texture of the pasta was compelling in a way that only an Italian Nona can understand, and sometimes even a very basic dish can be entirely gratifying.
The Agnolotti Del Plin were delicate on the tongue but robust in the mouth, with a brown butter sauce that was built to wow. After the richness of pappardelle with butter, cheese and truffles, you would think that this dish would be too heavy. However, the brown butter sauces that I’ve made in the past couldn’t hold a candle to this one, a dark decadence captured in each dimple of the filled pasta lamb’s ears, and the profile of the dish was so different with it’s rich heartiness and slightly salty nuttiness that I couldn’t get enough. Have you ever had a brown butter sauce that was so rich that it almost tasted…meaty? If not, this was the prime rib and popovers flavor adventure of the pastas we enjoyed.
For the last savory course we had Brasato al Barolo, a rich braised beef in red wine sauce with artisan Spin Rosso polenta. The meat was meltingly tender and laquered with a complex tasting glaze which was almost as black as my arteries after this meal. The presentation really was beautiful (look at that twee little bow on top!) and these pictures do not do it justice, but hopefully I can express to you the hazy rapture of using a dull fork to coax apart morsels of delectably tender, slow braised and richly flavored beef on a creamy soft bed of polenta. Again, this wasn’t a dish which was earthshattering with it’s creativity or guise, but it was honest food with premium ingredients and impeccable execution.
Dessert was Bonet with espresso, amaretti and fior di latte gelato. The pudding was saved from being too saccharine by the slightly bitter dark caramel sauce, and the tangy creaminess of the gelato was a superb compliment. Now THIS is a dessert worthy of rounding out a meal.
Whoooobaby, was that good. When asked if we would like some an espresso or cappuccino to accompany dessert, of course my answer was a vehement ‘NO’. It’s not that I was too full from dinner (although I was almost addled with gastronomic glee from all the delicious pasta and pink beef), but rather because I can’t help shunning a bean-drink when just an arms length away there is a Scotch selection that would make Rabbie Burns sigh with joy. For Mike I ordered an Armagnac, because I care.
Finally, in case you’re wondering how long it takes two people to share a bottle of wine and 11 sumptuous plates? Well, this is what Eataly looked like when we finally stumbled out into the cool New York night. The staff, bless their hearts, were gracious until the end.
200 5th AVENUE
NEW YORK, NY 10010
Entrances on 5th Avenue and 23rd Street