The Underground Gourmet on Bar Ciccio Alimentari and Forno Pizzeria e Trattoria
Who can say how many fancifully named pasta shapes there are in this world? Even an old pastavore like the Underground Gourmet has trouble keeping track. Just when you think you know your capellini (angel hair) from your cappelletti (little hats), and your maniche di frate (monk’s sleeves) from your strozzapreti (priest stranglers), along comes something unfamiliar. Take, for instance, the strisce at the new Bar Ciccio Alimentari. What are strisce? According to Ciccio’s Florence-born chef-partner Giacomo Romano, the word means “stripes,” and if you’ve never heard it applied to the world of pasta, well, it’s because Romano made that part up. (Apparently you can do that if you’re Italian.) Romano’s strisce are flat and ribbon-y and irregularly cut like maltagliati. Unravel one on the plate, and it looks like a sizzling strip of bacon. Another thing to know about these homely noodles: When cooked in Chianti and mingled with crisp nuggets of pancetta, red onion, and melted dabs of young Pecorino, they are pretty much perfect.
That dish is just one of the charms on display in the former antiques-shop space that Ciccio occupies. Located a few steps below ground level in one of the buildings that border the swath of Sixth Avenue sidewalk known as Father Fagan Park, this little snuggery has a winning air of relaxed authenticity. Romano and his architect girlfriend, Sam Leung, have renovated the room with rustic fixtures and whitewashed décor, so that the overall effect is of dining not in a slightly subterranean cubicle but in some breezy farmhouse tavern you inadvertently stumbled upon while tooling about the Tuscan countryside.
Romano, who has worked as a private chef in Florence and, more recently, as a manager at Caffè Falai, has the Tuscan-grandma knack for cooking food that initially might seem nondescript but that you eventually grow to appreciate as deceptively simple. Not everything on the more-or-less small-plates menu (soups, appetizers, and pastas) lives up to the promise of the strisce, but what’s good is very good: thin housemade focaccia, a nourishing bowl of ribollita, and a recent appetizer special of pork belly braised brisket style with onions and served over a swirl of mashed potatoes, for starters. The crocchette di baccalà, cod cakes that resemble buttermilk-biscuit tops, are first rate, too. Among the non-strisce fresh pastas, we recommend the ricotta-and-spinach-stuffed ravioli in a butter-and-sage sauce for their tender-chewy bite, a quality that’s lacking in the pappardelle and tagliatelle.
Opening an Italian restaurant without meatballs on the menu is risky business these days, like running a dynamite factory without fire insurance, and so Romano has seen fit to bequeath upon the dining public his nonna’s “secret recipe,” polpettine della Tosca. Served in a crock with a fruity tomato sauce, these meatballs are soft and beefy, and perhaps even better at brunch, when they’re topped with a fried egg and gently smooshed between two slices of focaccia. If Ciccio has a secret weapon besides Grandma’s meatballs, it’s Enrico Dardani, the suave and polished veteran waiter who serves as de facto host. Not only does he mix a mean Negroni; the man has what the owners of the buzzy new Carbone would call moves. While some waiters rely solely on verbal communication when recommending the merits of a particular dish, for instance, Enrico takes things a step further by punctuating his recitations with one of two alternating facial expressions—a dramatic downturn of the corners of his mouth, in the manner of Robert De Niro, as if to say, “Go on, give it a try,” and a bulging of the eyes and pursing of the lips, which we’ve interpreted as “You don’t want to miss it.”
Thanks to the peripatetic nature of New York chefs, you never know where you’ll encounter a familiar face—or recipe. Take focaccia Robiola, the undersung double-crusted pizza variant that eats like an ethereal form of a toasted bagel with cream cheese. That distinctive delicacy made its unexpected debut recently in the residential neighborhood of Maspeth, Queens. That’s where Saverio Verde, a pizzaiolo whose career the U.G. has followed with considerable interest since we discovered his wood-fired work at Mezzogiorno in Soho years ago, set up shop in February. Forno Pizzeria e Trattoria is a modest enterprise, a full-service restaurant in the guise of a slice joint. In this venture, Verde has teamed with his nephew—the son of Verde’s brother, Ciro, of Murray Hill’s venerable Da Ciro, who invented the aforementioned focaccia Robiola.
It makes sense that Verde has named his new spot for the brick oven whence come some of the best things we sampled recently: warm and crusty loaves of bread, which he uses for a roster of two-fisted sandwiches; oven-baked veal meatballs in a fresh, chunky tomato sauce; and the thin-crusted pizzas Verde offers in twelve- and sixteen-inch sizes. These range from the classic margherita to the more ornate “Forno,” topped with mushrooms, arugula, prosciutto, and a very assertive Gorgonzola. As befits any proper Queens trattoria, Forno’s menu is furnished with the full retinue of Italian-American standards, from veal francese to chicken Marsala. And, of course, the “small” chicken parm is the size of a Frisbee and comes with a side of penne pomodoro. The namesake oven only fails Verde in one regard: Since it doesn’t generate enough heat to suitably char the top of his focaccia Robiola, the chef whips out a blowtorch to give the thing a mottled, brûléed effect. The pizza police might look askance, but who knows? It might just spark a trend.
Bar Ciccio Alimentari
190 Sixth Ave., nr. Vandam St.; 646-476-9498
Hours: Dinner Tuesday through Friday 5:30 p.m. to midnight; Saturday from
6 p.m. Lunch Tuesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; weekend brunch 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Prices: $6 to $17.
Ideal Meal: Meatballs, strisce alla Chiantigiana.
Note: Housemade focaccia elevates lunchtime sandwiches.
Scratchpad: One star for the simple, satisfying food, and one each for the breezy atmosphere and service.
Forno Pizzeria e Trattoria
52-27 69th St., Maspeth; 718-424-1200
Hours: Sunday and Monday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday till 11 p.m.
Prices: $6.50 to $22.50.
Ideal Meal: “Mofolata” panino or focaccia Robiola.
Note: Beer and wine are forthcoming.
Scratchpad: Two stars for exceeding pizza-shop expectations.
*This article originally appeared in the May 13, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.