Saturday, February 23, 2008

Two-Faced and Terrific

janus_smallI’ve been working on my Italian a lot lately. I’ve also been practicing my language skills…

The other night I wasn’t out with the Italian, but I was still craving some, so after a meeting with potential Dinner Belle clients in the East Village, Erin and I decided to hit up the new spot on 7th St., Giano. Honestly, we chose the spot more because it was fucking freezing outside and we had just left our meeting at The Bourgeois Pig (right across the street), then from intrigue with the sleek-looking, modernist bar up front. In fact, I hesitated at first.

“It doesn’t look ‘warm’ in there.” We peered through the glass front. “And we’re only a few blocks away from Li’l Frankie’s and the pizza with arugula…”

But we had stared inside a moment too long and by then a quirky looking blonde was opening the door for us, beckoning us inside. Honestly, her smile was more welcoming than a fireplace, so we happily entered and I looked forward to trying a new place.

Giano was full of Italians, at least in terms of the staff; the patrons included some punk musician types at the bar and an extremely awkward, ‘second date,’ middle-aged couple angled into the corner. Schizophrenic crowd, schizophrenic décor (exposed brick/MoMa Store light fixtures; black and white graphic wallpaper/photographic sunflower mural), schizophrenic menu…oh, wait…I get it; it’s a “concept menu.” And the name reflects it…”Giano” = the two-headed Roman god, Janus. Now, I haven’t yet eaten at Insieme,but my friend Hannah, to whom I described the meal at Giano, says that popular restaurant has a similar concept going: traditional dishes on the left-hand side, innovative/experimental features on the right.

The waiter had already complimented my accent on my first “Buona serra;” I was game for the new concept place.

Of course, Erin wanted to order lasagna. The “traditional” side of the menu had her name written all over it: caprese salad, eggplant parm…But, I prodded and pleaded with her to share some of the more inventive dishes with me instead, promising we could have cheesecake for dessert. She gave in, and I haltingly told the waiter in Italian that we were starving and he could bring things as they were ready. We ordered risotto with pear, radicchio and taleggio, (the wonderfully stinky white cheese), house-made maltagliatipasta with a “white” boar ragu (it’s called white only because there is no tomato, not because it’s creamy—rather the meat is stewed with spices and minced vegetables), and the almond and pistachio-crusted lamb chops.

The wine flowed; the service was SO friendly, even the eccentric décor stopped being a distraction once the food arrived. The combination of flavors in the risotto was, indeed, innovative. The rice was well textured, the pear subtly sweet, the wilted radicchio extra bitter and the cheese, creamy and pungent. I added a bit of salt and was very enamored of the dish. Erin loves pear and cheese combos in almost any form, so this went down well with her too. She said she could’ve used a little less radicchio in the mix. I agreed.

Then. The maltagliati really was Killer. And not least because it was so SALTY! It reminded me of Mario’s pasta dishes, which I always love because the al dente is dead-on and the amount of salt does the quality of his ingredients justice. This ragu was incredibly flavorful, with a melting texture, but not super-greasy. The pasta was cooked perfectly and the noodles were adequately dressed with sauce, not overwhelmed. It was topped with a snowy mass of grated ricotta salata. Er and I fought with our forks over this one.

Then, unfortunately, came the letdown of the meal—the lamb chops. The dish reconfirmed my belief that most Italian restaurants’ Secondi selections are after-thoughts, always to be avoided in favor of more pasta. Or even extra antipasti! It is so rare that I really LOVE a non-pasta entrée at an Italian restaurant, Giano’s lamb chops included. The flavors were fine, but the cut of the chops was embarrassingly thin. I chuckled, when the dish arrived at our table, remembering that the waiter had asked how we wanted them cooked.

“Medium rare,” I’d replied. Erin raised an eyebrow. Okay, she’d already given up lasagna for me. “Medium,” I conceded.

But these chops were about as thick as the New Yorker I was carrying in my bag! Not a particularly dense issue, I might add. The pureed pumpkin and crisp green beans accompanying the offending chops were acceptable, not astonishing.

We were still discussing the merits of the catering event space we’d seen earlier in the evening, and I had promised, so we ordered the cheesecake for dessert. Our affable waiter took it upon himself to bring us a second dessert as well—the special for the evening: a molten chocolate cake sitting atop a pool ofZabaione. The cake was rich and I like Zabaione sauce because it tastes a lot like melted vanilla ice cream. I could only eat a couple of bites though, before bursting. Erin said she liked the cookie crust on her cheesecake, but she muttered on about Junior’s anyway. If I’d had less wine I might have started a discussion about why strawberry “dessert topping” deserves no place in her life, but I didn’t have the strength.

The quirky blonde offered us after-dinner drinks: Limoncello (barf), Sambuca (yum), or Amaro (soothing), but we knew we’d had enough already; we declined and thanked her for her generosity.

We headed back into the cold and waived down cabs immediately. As I rode west, back to Christopher St., I wondered whether I might take the Italian to Giano? Let him chat up his compatriots and get his reaction to that ragu, or maybe the tagliatelle in a bisque sauce served with blueberries and shrimp?! It’s very hard, though, to pull him away from his favorite watering hole, where his friends gather and eat, when he wants pasta.

I wonder how he feels about traditional/experimental in a menu. He seems to embrace the combo in his lingerie preferences…

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