Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Bon Voyage with an Italian Accent

eiffel-tower-parisMy bright, young cousin Natalie, a constant running buddy since she came to study at NYU in 2006, is moving to Parisfor the next six months! I’ll miss our Grey Dog lunches and Sunday night movie dates while she’s immersed at The Sorbonne, seeking out the company of romantic young Frenchmen (who, I’ve already warned her, will most likely stink). But, as I’ve also told her, she’ll become a citizen of the world in a way she’s never experienced before: speaking another language, soaking up celebrated art and architecture, discovering the dark, agnostic philosophies of the French. Mostly, I’m excited for her to develop her culinary palette and discover food and wine that stirs her soul the way mine was first stirred in Europe.

But first, a fitting goodbye to New York City had to be arranged. A night out on the town! Just the two of us…

We met for cocktails at Balthazar. Thought we’d get those Gallic impulses going with a couple of glasses of Lillet on the rocks. Now, I taught Natalie how to drink gin (though she always prefers a mixer of some sort: lime juice, tonic, etc., even when I request mine straight-up, as a martini), but Amanda is the one who introduced me to Lillet. In college, she would often sip it as a pre-dinner drink and I always thought it very chic. In truth, it’s a little too sweet for my typical taste in aperitif, but Natalie loved it, and now I’ll picture her with said stinky Frenchman at a glowing bistro in the Marais, sipping away on the liquor. Maybe she’ll even remember New York and me!

After drinks in SoHo, we moved on to my neighborhood, with the intention of trying out the new low-key Gastroteca (thus dubbed by New York Magazine), Gottino. I have been very excited to eat at the well-reviewed Gottino, where the head chef is a woman, Jodi Williams; I always welcome a new, easy-going establishment with purportedly fantastic food and wine into the West Village. Natalie was psyched to go because it was my treat. I mean, what’s an older, wiser, more sophisticated, and devastatingly stylish cousin supposed to do for her protégé who’s leaving the country for her first semester abroad…?

But, I was spending a lot of time complaining about how my devastatingly stylish pumps were killing me after having told the cab the wrong place to drop us off and having to walk blocks without finding the restaurant. Finally, we were on Greenwich Ave, which was where we needed to be, but I was still unsure about where to find Gottino. Then, we passed Gusto, a place that’s not new or particularly hip right now, but that I have often thought I’d love to try, not insignificantly because it too is run by a female chef, Amanda Freitag. Knowing we were close to our destination, but still turned around as to which way to head, I walked into Gusto and asked the modish host for directions.

He steered us a few doors down the street, and we found what we were looking for. Sort of. Gottino was unimpressive. Uninviting. Un-spectacular. And too hot to breathe in; not because of throngs of enthusiastic diners, mind you, there was just too much central heat!

gustoSo, we returned to Gusto and its gracious, au courant host, Sofian. He was French; it was a good sign. And then, we proceeded to have one of the most inspiring evenings I’ve had in a restaurant in a long time. The service was outstanding, with Sofian taking care of us as if we were regulars with huge expense accounts. Though we had no reservations and walked into the buzzing restaurant at 8:30pm, he ensconced us in prime seats at the bar and then sent out three appetizers, brushing aside our grateful astonishment with a simple, “for your wait.” The parmigiano and prosciutto fritters were delicious: fluffy, salty, crunchy all at once. The portion of cheese in the caprese salad was very generous, and if the mozzarella di buffala wasn’t the creamiest I’ve ever had, it was properly milky and the marinated red and orange peppers underneath, perfectly sweet. I’ll admit, the crisp radishes with anchovy paste wasn’t adored my Natalie or me, but we had plenty to keep us busy those first dishes and a quartino of Nero d’Avola.

Sofian held a prime table up front for us as we finished our appetizers. When we sat, we both gushed over how beautiful the restaurant is, with huge picture windows up front and sleek, glossy accents presided over by a massive, sparkling chandelier. The back and downstairs rooms add elements of cozy to the more modern main dining room. It is glamorous, but not at all stuffy. Loved it. And rest of the dishes we tried followed suit. There was a gloriously simple salad of delicate, buttery lettuces, which we paired with no less than three starchy dishes (hey, the appetizers had been comped and we were out to do it up right!). We ate the simple but fabulous cacio e pepe (essentially a dish of spaghetti with pecorino romano and lots of fresh cracked black pepper); a second dish consisted of silky pappardelle noodles with a rich, acidic ragu of oxtail and tomato, and finally, we tried the risotto del giorno, which proved a creamy pile of Arborio rice with soft artichoke hearts and lumps of fresh ricotta. Loved it.

nat-kAs an accompaniment to our final plate, a dessert of rich chocolate torta, we had the pleasure of Sofian’s flirty, but sexually ambiguous company. Natalie and I sipped our wine and licked chocolate off the backs of our forks while the gentleman whose lighthearted hospitality enchanted us with Gusto, patiently gave notes on navigating the city of Paris as a young American student. He drew maps, suggested publications and bars and clubs and museums and how to avoid pickpockets. He made her eyes sparkle with stories of the city, which made me know we had ended up in just the right spot for her last night on this side of the Atlantic.

We headed to Blue Ribbon Bar for an after dinner drink, as is our tradition on long nights out together. I drank my favorite, dry sherry and she sampled a sparkling pear cider recommended by the laid-back, bearded bartender. We contemplated falling in love with men who speak French (but smell like they’ve embraced American hygiene) and imagined ourselves together in Paris, in the spring, when I plan to visit.

Bon voyage Natalie! Bon chance!


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