The ongoing mania for old-country cooking has lately spawned some great Italian restaurants, Osteria Morini and Locanda Verde among them. But with so many top chefs launching their own upscale trattorias, the New York food scene is becoming awfully monochromatic.
Shea Gallante, whose complex fare at the now-shuttered Cru often had Italian notes, is the latest toque to jump on the bandwagon at his Flatiron newcomer, Ciano. The chef, justly acclaimed at his last post for his haute cuisine derring-do (he sauced tuna in espresso, and teamed langoustines with papaya and gin) plays it much safer this time around. His new menu’s rib-sticking pleasures may be easy to like, but they’re just as easy to forget.
That his simple, bucolic Italian cuisine is served in a restaurant with Park Avenue prices and a velvet-rope sneer doesn’t help matters. Without insider connections, the Tuscan-themed dining room, its rich leather banquettes warmed by a blaze from an enormous stone hearth, is difficult to penetrate; expect a seat among hoi polloi up front near the bar.
Wherever you sit, you’ll find Gallante’s food familiar and polished, if not very distinctive. His crudo—fresh sea-bream slivers curled around grapefruit and saffron aioli—is light and subdued, raw fish for beginners. Fried baby artichokes, served in a salad with crispy radish and sweet roasted cherry tomatoes, are deftly executed, but they would be pretty ho-hum if not for the addition of funky smoked ricotta salata.
And though fancy-pants meatballs seem so 2010, Gallante nonetheless clocks in some great ones. His delicate orbs of loosely packed veal—an exorbitant starter at $18 a pair—are served on an extravagant puddle of truffled polenta. Black truffles are also responsible for making butter-sopped cavatelli, tricked out with Swiss chard and hunks of duck sausage, so compulsively rich.
Meaty mains skew more rustic but are no less steeply priced. A $32 mostarda-glazed pork roast with sweet-and-sour vinegared onions is great tavern fare—optimal eating in front of a fire but awfully expensive for simple stewed meat.
Desserts (tiramisu teased into a semifrozen cube, pistachio cake hiding in its core a plump boozy cherry) are as solidly crowd-pleasing as everything else here. From a chef known for challenging diners, Ciano is disappointingly restrained. But for those who remain in the grip of Italian simplicity, it’s still a pretty good restaurant.
Eat this: Veal meatballs, cavatelli with duck sausage, rack of lamb
Drink this: The wine program is as ambitious as the food is subdued—and it offers much better bargains to boot. While there are astronomical bottles (anyone for a $2,300 Romanée-Conti?), there are also plenty of choices at $50 or less.
Sit here: If you can sweet-talk your way into a seat by the fire, that’s the place to be. If not, the dining annex up a short flight of stairs is at least quiet.
Conversation piece: Ciano is a homecoming of sorts for chef Shea Gallante, who started his career cooking simple Italian food under Pino Luongo before shifting gears to haute French under David Bouley.