Don't expect baked ziti, eggplant parm or spaghetti and meatballs at Del Posto. There are plenty of other restaurants in New York offering those stereotypical red sauce dishes. Del Posto is different - a theatrical, elegant bastion of Italian cuisine that commands your attention the moment you walk in the door and are transported to another place, another time.
The curvaceous balconies make you feel like it's intermission at the opera. Close your eyes and the the cabaret style tinkling of the ivories will have you thinking you're at The Carlyle. The multicolored tile floors wouldn't be out of place in Siena's cathedral.
And the food - which is after all, the reason to be here -- well, the food is refined without being precious, and every bit as delicious as you'd expect when the owners are Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and her son Joe.
Starting with the best bellini I've had this side of Venice, the evening continued on an upward climb, with little flourishes throughout that showed just how serious Del Posto aims to please. Even the bar snacks were noteworthy, especially the crispy fried ziti dusted with cheese.
And where else does every female get a cushioned stool for her handbag so it doesn't have to be sullied on the floor? Need to take a trip to the powder room mid-meal? No worry, your food will be warm when you return thanks to a silver dome that a waiter will quickly don atop your plate.
But I digress. It's the food we're here for - the food. And the parade of dishes began with complimentary bocconi (little bites) from the kitchen: tramezzini (little triangular sandwiches) filled with lobster salad; prosciutto coiled around sauerkraut (a nod to Lidia’s region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia) and small china cups rimmed with toasted breadcrumbs and filled with a tomato and olive oil broth. An auspicious – and delicious start to the evening. Just when you thought the real meal would begin, out came another round of goodies courtesy of the house: from left are fried olives, chickpea fritters and arancini – small rice balls oozing with cheese, crisply fried and topped with a speckling of gold leaf. It was hard to say which was best, because they were all great teases for the main event (well, maybe the gold leaf gives the arancini the edge). In any event, I could happily have continued with just more of these small bites and a few more bellini for the rest of the night.
But who am I kidding? Everything on the menu sounded tempting and the wine list was lengthy. We were ready to forge ahead and indulge - no arm twisting necessary. We didn’t have have a favorite wine in mind, or a degree in oenology, considering the 64 page wine list, but the waiter was helpful in narrowing our choice to a red that was rich in complexity, but not too heavy – a 2008 Graci Etna Rossa from the eponymous Sicilian slope.
A waiter set down a basket filled with a variety of warm breads – really good and crusty warm breads, along with plates heaped with an unsalted butter from Emilia Romagna and some whipped lard perfumed with the fragrance of prosciutto.
We all opted for the five-course menu, and that included two pasta courses. For the antipasto, I ordered a lobster salad alla Catalana with tomato & celery, which was the closest anyone ever got to a red sauce that night. This was decidedly a nod to Spain though, rather than a truly Italian dish - light, a bit piquant, flavorful, crunchy and silky all at the same time. If this is fusion cooking, I’m definitely in favor of mixed marriages.
All four of us at the table sampled each other’s plates and judging from the other appetizers I tasted - abalone carpaccio with grilled asparagus and young ramps, and fried calamari with spicy capers – they were equally delicious.
Next it was on to the pasta. Everyone at the table had to agree on which two to choose. It wasn’t easy, given the variety of choices. Our first selection -- pumpkin-stuffed cappellacci in brown butter, really hit the mark and demonstrated that someone really knows his way around a mattarello (ok, so maybe it’s a pasta machine but these were so toothsome and delicious, who would know?) The nutty, sage-infused sauce was a perfect accompaniment to the plump pasta pillows.
From here on in, the light was beginning to fade as nighttime descended. If you can’t tell from the photo, take my word for it that the dish of handmade orecchiette with lamb sausage, crispy morels and minted edamame beans was a flavor explosion in the mouth. I am going to learn how to duplicate that minty sauce if it’s the last thing I do. Any tips from Chef Mark Ladner or others in the kitchen greatly appreciated. Lidia, Mario, Joe – are you listening?
Judging from the fuzziness of this next picture, you may think I was a little tipsy, but I assure you it was strictly the deficiencies of shooting in low light with a point-and-shoot camera. Excuse me, could you pour more wine? Oh, sorry.
What you’re looking at was another lagniappe from the kitchen. (For those of you who’ve never been to New Orleans or ignored those Readers’ Digest “It Pays To Increase Your Word Power,” columns, let it be known that a lagniappe - pronounced lan-yap - is an unexpected gift.)
And what a gift it was – creamy, unctuous, perfectly cooked lobster risotto made with radicchio and Valpolicella wine. It’s a safe bet this was never on the menu at Mamma Leone’s.
With such a winning streak of great dishes, the main course was almost an anti-climax. But not really. I ate every morsel of this lamb dish, cooked for so many hours it nearly fell off the bone, just the way I remember eating abbacchio many times in Rome. But in the Eternal city, it was never served with garlic yogurt, a tangy and most welcome complement to the meat.
We each ordered a different main dish, and as good as my lamb was, the consensus at the table was that the duck breast, served with beer-braised endives, almond & laurelled melons was the hands-down favorite. Unfortunately, my sub-par photo of the dish makes it look like twisted snake tongues (note to self – take photo classes), so I’ll spare you the photographic evidence. Otherwise, I’d have posted it. But trust me (well trust all four of us actually), that duck just melted in your mouth.
The portions thankfully, were not gargantuan. Which to me is a good thing. Otherwise, we’d never have had room for dessert. Again, I hate to keep apologizing for the bad photos, but this really doesn’t do justice to this dish. Please know however, that I practically licked the plate clean of my butterscotch semifreddo with preserved melon agrumata, crumbled sbrisolona and caramel sauce.
Another dessert that may sound a bit unusual but worked on every level, included a celery sorbet topped with strands of marinated celery, served with balls of goat cheese rolled in crunchy bread crumbs and segments of figs that are at once both sweet and sour. Strange, I know. But very refreshing, and very good.
For a better photo of the celery dessert and a New York Times article about it and Del Posto’s pastry chef Brooks Headley, click here.
Just when we thought the meal was over, a waiter delivered a wooden box cheese grater. Arranged on top and tucked inside the drawer were small little sweet treats. My stomach was saying no, but my eyes said yes, so what I can tell you - we polished off all of them – from the doughnut-hole-like filled bomboloni, to the crunchy-covered chocolate lollipops to the caramel-ly nibbles that arrived with their own edible wrapper.
There was also espresso, vin santo and lots of joy at the table that night. And on the way out – four hours later - a gift box containing two of the most decadently delicious dark chocolate truffles I’ve ever eaten. I don’t usually like chocolate truffles but after eating the ones from Del Posto, I might be tempted to commit a few venial sins in exchange for the recipe. (Just kidding, Monsignor Nolan.)
Dear Lidia, Joe, Mario, Mark, Brooks, wait staff, bar people and everyone else responsible for making this Italian dining experience truly memorable - “I’ll be back.”
And a special grazie mille and abbraccione to my dear friends Lynn and Richard who treated me to a much-welcome spot of brightness at Del Posto last week, amid some very dark days in recent months.