Monday, October 31, 2011

Chef's Tasting | Ciano

For our monthly (at least we try to make it so) girls' night out dinner, I suggested that we (i.e., Linda, Jess, and I) go to Ciano, a cute little Italian ristorante over in the Flatiron District (my favorite 'hood). I had heard about Ciano from Alice -- her photography intern stint over at Serious Eats New York brought her over there on assignment late last month. So after hearing about how amazing the pasta tasting menu was from her as well as reading the SENY write-up about it, I knew I had to make it there ASAP. What better time to try out an amazing tasting menu than with my two favorite foodie girls (aka my partners in cuisine)?

Chef Shea Gallante partnered with Philippe Chow restaurateur, Stratis Morfogen, to open Ciano, "a new, seasonal ingredient driven, casual and atmospheric Italian restaurant" replacing the former home of Beppe. He began his cooking career at fourteen, when he developed a fascination for Italian cooking at a local pizza shop in Upstate New York, which inspired him to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America. Since then, Chef Gallante has worked closely with Chef Lidia Bastianich (at Felidia) and with Chef David Bouley (at Bouley). After working under these brilliant chefs, Chef Gallante went on to spend five years at the now closed Cru of wine geekery fame as executive chef for the first time, where he earned three stars in The New York Times and a Michelin star. He now brings a great attitude to Ciano that diners applauded him for at Cru -- "a seasonal and simple approach to Italian cuisine, allowing fresh quality ingredients to be the star."

Loving this miniature centerpiece -- a glass orb with a singular sprig of rosemary. What a lovely testament to Chef Gallante's commitment to fresh ingredients -- he even showcases an ingredient as a restaurant centerpiece! Genius!

Inside Ciano -- interesting bunny rabbit mural with its black and white contrasting against the restaurant's rustic brick wall.

In true Linda-fashion, we began our meal with some bubbly water, which is always refreshing! I always forget to, but I should order sparkling water more often while dining out. It adds some subtle punch to the meal!

Now one of the most interesting and exciting things about Ciano is not only that it offers a pasta tasting menu (woot!) but also that it has quite an intriguing wine program that pretty much appeals to all kinds of wine preferences alike! John Slover, former sommelier at Cru, has created an extensive wine list at Ciano, mirroring his creative "half bottle" program at Bar Henry. Essentially, every single bottle of wine in the cellar is up for grabs as either a whole bottle or a half bottle! How freaking awesome is that?! You don't have to commit to the entire bottle unless you wish to! You can opt to try something else if you're not totally feeling the first half of the bottle. Additionally, you can "shop" off the "already open" bottle list for wines that strike your immediate fancy! So practical and simple -- more restaurants should embrace this for sure! Linda, Jess, and I were all wide-eyed by the time our server explained this to us. Let the drinking begin!

Chef Gallante's menu at Ciano will change often, even daily, depending on availability of ingredients and inspiration. There is a bread oven at the restaurant's center, serving both as an aesthetic and functional purpose by breathing life into a series of reshly baked focaccias, ciabattas, and pizza (bread).

Along with the baked focaccia and pizza bread, there came truffle butter (mmm -- soo good!) and extra virgin olive oil.

What I really wanted to have at Ciano was the six-course tasting menu for pasta lovers. I've never seen a tasting menu centered around a singular ingredient like pasta before, so I was immediately fascinated about the idea upon viewing the Serious Eats slideshow and perusing the restaurant's online menu. And what a deal it is! For $79, Ciano offers its patrons the opportunity to sample its most popular pasta dishes as well as brand new creations not offered a la carte. But be wary -- the courses you will read in this post may not reflect the current menu, as Chef Gallante has said that it may change frequently, staying true to his commitment to seasonal ingredients. So that night, the three of us decided to go with the Fall 2011 pasta tasting menu. Our stomachs were totally up for the challenge, openly welcoming the abounding carbohydrates ahead. Plus, with Mr. Slover's expertise behind the restaurant's wine list, we opted for a "half bottle" pairing with each course.

The first course of the pasta tasting menu was homemade egg-caper noodles with Maine lobster, eggplant caviar, and tomato. The egg-caper noodles had a vermicelli-like texture and consistency. The flavors overall were very bold -- juicy lobster, gritty and earthy eggplant caviar, and tart tomatoes working together to provide a chilled and refreshingly spicy taste experience in a reasonable in-under-ten-bite portion. As Chef Gallante was "limited" (i.e., depending on how one may define that) to a pasta-driven, multi-course menu, I gather he had to somehow make the entire meal progress similarly to a traditional tasting menu (i.e., appetizer/starter followed by the main course(s) and finished with dessert) without the diner feeling overwhelmed with starch and the conventional bowl of pasta. I liked that it was served chilled -- just like an antipasto, crudo, or tartare -- because it basically marked the start of the meal ahead, making a nice start to what was to become a wonderful meal of meticulously crafted and incredibly flavorful pastas. This was paired with a 2010 arneis produced by Mosca Bianca from Piedmonte, Italy. I thought it went pretty well with this course, as it had a crisp taste that blended well with the chilliness of the pasta.

For our second course, we had the gnudi "tre-colore," comprising of three "colored" flavors: parmigiano (white), chevril (green), and black truffle ("red"). Gnudi is a type of gnocchi made from ricotta cheese and a bit of flour. The resulting combination is a dumpling that is essentially "nude" ravioli, i.e., filling without the pasta. And this second course was just that -- fluffy, light, and creamy! At first I was led astray by the meager size of this course ("Does he seriously think he can get away with three balls of gnudi as one whole course, even if the selling point is "tre-colore"?"), but after tasting each one, I was immediately humbled by the brilliance executed by Chef Gallante with the gnudi. Starting at the top was the chervil (i.e., a type of parsley) gnudi (green), which had a grainy yet creamy consistency. Continuing counter clockwise was the parmagiano (white) gnudi had the essence of an oyster cracker in the form of creamy goodness. And lastly was the black truffle (red, from the sopressata) gnudi -- my favorite out of the three. It was topped lightly meaty with a sharp spice that complemented the essence of black truffle infused inside its thick sphere. If you go ga-ga for anything that contains a hint of black truffle, this is just for you. The three of us just sat there in disbelief at how amazingly good this was. Definitely was a promising omen of what was sure to come from the rest of the dinner.

The third pasta course was a rotolo di pasta (i.e., pasta roll) that contained broccoli rabe, sweet sausage, and tomato ragù. What an intriguing interpretation of a rotolo di pasta. The pasta was delicately assembled with thinly cut sweet sausage, all topped with a very flavorful and robust tomato ragù. Certainly one of my favorite courses of the night -- the careful assembly of this dish was impressive alone. The deliciousness that came after made it even better, making for a wonderful fall pasta dish attributable to is hearty ingredients. The housemade pasta was well done as well. This was initially paired with a 2008 Montefalco rosso (sangiovese blend) from the Italian province of Umbria (more specifically the town of Montefalco) produced by di Filippo. Upon first sip, Jess wasn't feeling it, and after tasting it ourselves, Linda and I agreed. We informed Mr. Slover, who immediately took our glasses away and gave another suggestion. "Tannic, not satanic," we pled. We ended up with a 2009 "Pietramaggio" produced by Grignano from Tuscany. This was softer smoother on the palate and less tannic than the first one, making it much more to our liking and boding well for our pasta courses that were heavier in protein.

As our fourth course, we had ravioli con carbonara, a combination of pecorino, smoked guanciale, hen egg, fried parsley, and black pepper. And just as the description probably sang in your head, the ravioli was like, in summary, the perfect brunch on a relaxing Sunday morning. With the hen egg over the ravioli, the pasta became even more savory. Plus, the addition of the smoked guanciale made for what I describe in this dish as to be "refined bacon." The runny yolk served as a nice sauce for the ravioli to swim in for more flavor, and the smoked guanciale added a nice, salty crunch to the rest of the ingredients. Though I wolfed this down pretty quickly, it was definitely on the heavier side, so definitely savor it!

The next course (the fifth) proceeded with gnocchi al sugo with suckling pig and grilled fall vegetables. We found the gnocchi to be too doughy, lacking that ideal consistency and texture in between being overly creamy and overly chewy. The combination of ingredients failed to come together as they had in our previous courses, leaving us a bit disappointed -- we enjoyed the grilled fall vegetables and the suckling pig, but the gnocchi didn't seem to fit at all. It was too deconstructed for our liking and probably would have done better with the substitution of polenta for the gnocchi. As my stomach started finally feeling the effects of a starch-driven meal at this point, it wasn't too much of a loss in feeling a bit disappointed with this dish.

Our last course was a "cannoli" -- a sweet take on the "pasta" theme of the tasting menu. This dessert was a combination of pasta fritti, whipped ricotta, pistachios, and chocolate chips, all with a side of olive oil ice cream. The pasta fritti, which acted as the "pasta" ingredient in this somewhat abstract cannoli, was fried very well to a nice crisp. The whipped ricotta sandwiched between the two strips of pasta fritti was lightly sweet and creamy -- what every center of a cannoli needs. The chocolate chips and pistachios added a good sweet-and-nutty crunch to the overall dessert. The olive oil ice cream kept the sweetness of this dessert grounded with a smooth savoriness glazing over. I found the playful inspiration of a "pasta" dessert here to be very refreshing and creative.

Our dinner concluded with mignardises (i.e., a selection of house-baked cookies) -- an assortment of butter cookies, chocolate cookies, bell pepper macarons, and chocolate truffle (I think?). We were so full already, that we nibbled on a few of these, which were pretty good, leaving me to bring back the remaining ones for Marcus. I believe Jess put it best: "I think my mouth just turned off -- I can't taste anymore! So full!"

Me, Jess, and Linda at Ciano.

Findings: Overall, I was very impressed with the Fall (2011) pasta tasting menu over at Ciano. Beforehand, I was expecting some pretty good pasta, but nothing to the caliber of what was actually presented and served to us. Every single dish (with the exception of the gnocchi) blew me away in both execution and in flavors. The housemade pastas are phenomenal and done very well where you can taste the freshness as you're sampling each course. Additionally, I enjoyed the atmosphere and ambiance of Ciano -- it was casual and relaxed (i.e., its down-dressed crowd -- very business cas) yet sophisticated (i.e., its refined Italian cuisine -- more so pastas in our case). It is both a romantic place as well as the ideal location for an intimate group of friends to catch up on things. The wine list offerings over at Ciano is another great reason to make the trip there -- probably one of the fewest places in Manhattan where you can sample all kinds of wine -- ranging in price, vintage, varietal, and region -- without committing to an entire bottle. What John Slover has done here (as well as the other restaurants for which he directs wine programs) is created a unique wine drinking experience to be paired along a pleasant meal (lunch or dinner -- your choice) prepared by Chef Shea Gallante. He is quite wizardly with the pastas we had during our dinner that night, given their simple ingredients and the delicate, meticulous construction of each, all of which makes me curious to see where Chef Gallante will take Ciano throughout the seasons of the year, especially for the pasta tasting menu.

To capitulate, please get your butt over to Ciano for some kickass pasta -- a la carte or via tasting menu. You will certainly be in for a pleasant surprise of amazingly housemade pastas among an assortment of bold, seasonal flavors mixed right in.

Price point: $79 per person for the pasta tasting menu.

--October 13, 2011

45 East 22nd Street
New York, NY 10010

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