Raising the Bar: Solid Bar Bites at Bar Stuzzichini
"You may feel like you're dining in a mall restaurant along the Garden State Parkway, but the food is solid."
It didn't look promising when I entered Bar Stuzzichini. It was dark, and there was just too much red paint, layered upon layer like most apartment staircases in the East Village. The friend who accompanied me said the place reminded her of Applebee's. Ouch. Not good. Nevertheless, we grabbed one of the more cheerful looking tables by the window and ordered a few stuzzichini (appetizers) and a pasta to share. I've had great meals at worse looking places.
And Bar Stuzzichini didn't disappoint.
At Bar Stuzzichini, you can order the stuzzichini plates individually, or order three for $15, five for $25. Ordering a set is a better deal, since most dishes range from $7-$9. We, of course, opted for five.
The Grilled Prawns, grilled head and shell-on and drizzled with olio santo (spicy olive oil), while difficult to peel, were fresh and cooked perfectly. It's a bit on the saltier side, but this being a bar snack, it wasn't a big deal. Just be sure to suck the heads when you're done. There's a good amount of rich creamy goo inside.
Likewise, the Grilled Octopus, one coiled tentacle simply poached, grilled, and gently seasoned so the subtle taste of the octopus shone through, was cooked well so the meat was still soft and easy to chew.
The Fried Artichoke was fried so crisp, the outer leaves tasted like chips. It didn't seem very greasy, but the pool of oil left on the butcher paper proved otherwise. Regardless, since the artichokes are small and come only two per plate, you can eat them guilt-free. (It's hard to feel guilty when the food is gone in two or three bites.)
The golf-ball sized Arancini (rice balls) at Bar Stuzzichini were smaller than most, but full of sharp Parmesan goodness underneath the fried exterior. Big on flavor, one order, which comes with three scrumptious rice balls, was quite filling.
I hadn't expected much from the Zucchine alla Scapece, since it had only been ordered to provide some unfried vegetal nutrition to the meal, but it was surprisingly delightful. The grilled zucchini still had a bite, and marinated in vinegar and garnished with mint, it tasted clean and refreshing, especially among the fried dishes.
After sharing the stuzzichini, we moved onto the Gnocchi all'Amatriciana ($15), made with cured pork jowl (guanciale). Light and bouncy, the gnocchi was obviously housemade, and the red sauce was bright with just enough guanciale to round out the flavors. For those who think gnocchi is dense and leaden, Bar Stuzzichini's version will change your mind completely.
As for drinks, Bar Stuzzichini has only a few beers on tap, but makes up for it with a good Italian wine list, at least fifteen of which can be ordered by the quartino. I had the 2007 Sella & Mosca 'La Cala' Vermentino ($12), a dry floral white wine that was lovely with my seafood stuzzichini.
Bar Stuzzichini isn't the sexiest of bars, and you may feel like you're dining in a mall restaurant along the Garden State Parkway, but the food is solid. On a week night, I'd gladly go back with friends or coworkers. (During Happy Hour, weekdays 4:30-6:30pm, weekends 3:00-5:00pm, a purchase of a beer, cocktail, or a quartino of wine at the bar comes with a complimentary stuzzichino.) But on a date, I'd go elsewhere.