You wouldn’t expect the Italian grocery-shelf mights of America (DiGiorno, Buitoni) to open a restaurant worth a food-world nod, but back in the old country, it’s a different story. Giovanni Rana, the king of fresh packaged pasta in Italy, produces the country’s best store-bought ravioli. It also runs 28 restaurants and counting, up and down the Boot. The company’s new Chelsea outpost, the first American branch, is what Olive Garden might look like if it were run by Italians with very good taste.
The slickly art-directed retro-industrial space—a sort of Restoration Hardware as restaurant experience—is a shrine to the analog tools of artisanal pasta production, the cavernous dining room festooned in antique cutters, graters and strainers.
Rana himself, a real pasta man from Verona, not a fictional marketing tool, has been teasing translucent dough into beautiful shapes for the last 60 years. This new overseas flagship showcases an endless array of fillings and flavors, the fresh pasta, made daily in-house, displayed like bulk candy in a retail case near the kitchen.
While the single-subject focus is clear, it’s not at the expense of everything else. This is a full-service restaurant, in fact, with a serious chef. Transplant Francesco Bernardinelli, a veteran of three-Michelin-starred San Domenico in Italy, makes terrific shared starters to kick off the meal.
Big boards of sharp cheese and whisper-thin meats are served with warm fried gnocco puffs. Light and crispy fritto misto—golden shrimp, calamari and bite-size baby fish—comes piled into an old-fashioned colander. Tiny copper pots perched on a rolling pin pedestal hold a gutsy trio of crostini spreads—ricotta-kale pesto, mashed eggplant, sun-dried tomato and pecorino puree.
There are strands, curls and sheets among the long list of pastas, but stuffed shapes are the draw. Plump mezzaluna, literally bursting with fresh lobster hunks, arrives with roasted tail and claw meat on top, along with big chanterelles. There are frail ravioli showered in toasted almonds, with sweet pumpkin in the filling and dough. More robust brasato bundles, stuffed with potent braised short ribs, come dressed in a delicious earthy mix of chopped chestnuts and Savoy cabbage shreds.
Though the pastas—delivered at their al dente prime with a light slick of olive oil or butter—are rich and substantial enough to anchor a meal, proteincentric entrées have been tacked on for good measure. There’s a juicy roasted baby chicken and a big-ticket aged steak, served sliced off the bone. And while both are competently executed, neither has the personality to rival the keynote dish here. Better to fill up on those pastas—they’re portioned for passing around—and then head straight for dessert.
The sweet fried ravioli filled with chocolate-hazelnut ganache is a playful conclusion. But a mini mason jar striped with colorful layers of heady espresso panna cotta, sweet white-chocolate mousse and tart passion-fruit gelée makes a much more elegant finish.
Giovanni Rana might not rank among the city’s greatest power pasta players—it is still a chain, albeit a glorified one, after all—but the superlative noodles and sweets certainly wouldn’t be mistaken for big-box junk. Perhaps it’s time we asked more of our homegrown chains.
Eat this: Salumi-cheese board, crostini spreads, lobster mezzaluna, brasato ravioli, pumpkin ravioli, espresso panna cotta
Drink this: The fine cocktails include the refreshing Romeo y Julieta (sparkling wine, limoncello and hazelnut liqueur, $13). Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver created the Ama Bionda ($8), a robust Belgian-style ale on tap, for Amarcord Brewery in Emilia-Romagna.
Sit here: Solo diners should grab a stool at the curvy bar. The back of the dining room offers the best views of the glass-enclosed kitchen.
Conversation piece: Among the antiques from Italy, there’s a vintage red motorbike (on a wall behind the bar) driven by Giovanni Rana as a young man, when he delivered pasta to stores in Verona. His first shop there, where he used some of the equipment on display in New York, opened in 1962.
By Jay Cheshes