Friday, January 22, 2010

Review: Felidia Ristorante

For days, I have been thinking about nothing but the ravioli.

As I slogged home from the subway, my wet footprints crossing the little urban park, I closed my eyes, sucked on my teeth, and transported myself back to the table at Felidia last week. The warmth of the bowl radiated up my chest, and the aroma of melting sheep’s cheese, salty with a faint reminiscence of a farmhouse, licked at my face. Such a simple thing, ravioli, but when made with great attention paid to fine details, they are among the most comforting foods in the world.

I've intentionally not included a photo of the ravioli because their look does not do justice to their texture, taste, and aroma.

These ravioli were part of a four-course meal ($65) at Felidia Ristorante in New York, where Boyfriend took me to dinner, on his parents’ dime, as part of a gift from them. When I arrived, I had no idea that this was where we were headed, as it was his task to pick the restaurant, and he kept it a secret for almost two weeks.

Felidia is the New York flagship restaurant of Lidia Bastianich, the cookbook author and longtime PBS television show host, as well as one of my heroes of the culinary world. I’ve always loved how she presides over a sauté pan, a stove, a menu, a kitchen, in a totally matriarchal way. I love that she taught me half of what I know about Italian cooking, but that she is from an area that is now, technically and politically speaking, Croatia. Her word choices are often those of a foreigner (she always tells her audience to “close the fire”), her figure has gotten a little pudgy, she’s balding, and yet she is utterly confident and unabashed in everything she does. Most important of all, she knows good food.

The waitstaff seated us at an upstairs table (clearly inferior to those downstairs) and promptly at their leisure brought us a basket of warm, assorted breads, some sweet with raisins, some saltier with overtones of olive oil.

As I mentioned, Boyfriend and I both opted for a pre-fixe meal, mostly because I didn’t want to be thrown into a state of indecision while trying to choose off the menu. The four-course dinner was at the chef’s selection, but I asked for a quick overview beforehand to help me select a wine: octopus starter, sheep’s cheese ravioli, beef two ways (seared, braised), and dessert. “Great,” I said, “We’ll both have that. But I need a little more time with the wine list, please.”

I don’t know a lot about wine, but if you have any affinity for vino Italiano, you’ll want to set aside a good 15 minutes with Felidia’s list. There are six pages of Barolo alone. I ordered a lighter red wine—2004 Casale Daviddi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ($50)—to pair well with the first two courses (the beef dish could have used something bolder, fruitier, and more assertive).

Just in front of our table, a hot plate station was set up for finishing dishes, a nice touch that ensures food arrives only moments after it is plated, but I found it distracting in the dining room. Two or three staff members fussed over a skillet. My eyes were drawn to investigate the little row of olive oil bottles that were part of the mise en place, at times when I wished they had been focused on my own dinner.

Boyfriend pointed out a few other details that were overlooked, like the rubbed off corners on the red leather chairs and the fresh paint bubbles on the wall (a sign of a leak). I can nitpick the restaurant’s interior, but when scrutinizing the quality of the food, every bite held up considerably. The starter, grilled octopus served with paper-thin sliced “mosaic” of octopus, dotted with fruity olive oil, offered a sea of textures and umami flavors. The edges of the platter had been flecked with something black and char-like, little specks of curiosity on this mammoth arrangement. (Photo from MyRecipes.com)

The second course brought forth the ravioli. Wrapping my lips around the first one, my teeth sunk down, then yielded slightly before traveling all the way through, like biting gently cooked cabbage leaves. In the bowl with the pasta, cheese, and black pepper I could taste a hint of salty pasta water and possibly a few spoonfuls of broth. Upon eating these, I very well could have called it quits, declared dinner a success, and gone home thrilled. At each mouthful, I was both satisfied and left wanting more.

I’m not the biggest fan of beef, but I can appreciate a well-cooked slice of steak or hunk of meat stewed well past the threshold of “fork-tender.” Felidia’s beef two ways was a sweet and soft braised piece, standing as a little pedestal for the rare and thinly sliced hanger steak. Tucked under the braised beef, in bottom of the dish, were a few hearty beans and a bit of deliciously buttery kale.

For dessert, I welcomed a platter of six different kinds of dollhouse-sized cookies, in particular the dark, bitter, and gritty espresso cookies; but most of all the amaretti jam thumbprints. The main part of dessert, a tiramisu served in a mug, was for me the least impressive dish all night. But if you enjoy fresh whipped cream, the tiramisu might be more to your liking, as that was it mostly tasted and felt like.

Felidia
243 East 58th Street
Between Second and Third Avenues
New York, NY 10022

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