In The Midnight Hour: Sorella
Open Until: 2:00 am, Tue-Sat; 12:00 am, Sun
Drinking Until: close, 7 days
Food Until: close, 7 days
Sorella, Sara Krathen and Emma Hearst's punchy ode to Piedmont, has remained a mainstay on the restaurant-saturated Lower East Side since opening two and a half years ago in the mist of a middling economy. No doubt, Hearst's deft melding of traditional Piedmontese ingredients and edgy, Loisaida flair played its part, but staying open 'til 2am five days a week along the central vein of a notoriously late-night neighborhood can't have hurt either.
The restaurant presents itself as a kind of backwards mullet: party in the front, with a communal table and cozy bar seating; serious dining in the back, where two and four-tops sit beneath flattering low light in a sea of white brick. By the time we took our seats at said communal table, the dining room had quieted down, but the area up front was cacophonous. And so we sidled up next to a couple pawing over asparagus salad and a group of European visitors and their hosts, who spent much of their time debating over selections on the comprehensive Italy-centric wine list.
The menu is divided into small plates (qualcosina, or "a little something"), pastas, sides, and the requisite cheeses and meats. In keeping with the casual atmosphere, a daily-changing list of entrees is presented on a separate card titled, "Tonight We Have". Each table gets a cone of complimentary grissini to start the meal. Ours were exhausted before the first dishes arrived, and it's worth noting that they were refilled shortly after. Service on the whole was extremely pleasant, and our sleeve-tattooed waitress was attentive without being intrusive.
Crispy veal sweetbreads ($14) are no stranger to most progressive menus around town, but Hearst takes some some liberties with her preparation that make this dish sing. There's the cornmeal crust, which adds a light and ultra-crisp textural contrast to the creamy offal, turning them into a kind of popcorn chicken for fancy folk, as well as an addictive passion fruit-bacon sauce—the fruity tang and porcine unctuousness amplifying one another. The plate gets a scattering of scallions which cut through the heavier elements with their sweet onion bite.
Also from the qualcosina section of the menu, Hearst Ranch beef carne cruda ($14), which comes from the chef's family cattle ranch (although, to call it a "family ranch" seems a little silly considering it's one of the largest in California), arrives as a puck of glistening, roughly-cut filet topped with a jumble of fried shallots and offset by a lemon aioli and bias-cut sugar snap peas with parmigiano-reggiano. The beef itself needed a bit more salt, but that may well have been intentional—eaten together, the dish found its footing. Of course, if pure, unadulterated raw cow flavor is what you're into, this is some lovely grass-fed meat despite being far from local.
Many of the pastas have some fun little twist, from the brown butter pears served with gnocchi to the pepperoncini that dot a dish of thick, tubular pici with spicy pork ragu. A seasonal special, ruby red shrimp risotto ($15) with ramp pesto and pickled ramps sounds like what it is: springtime critic bait, and a fine plate at that. Juicy, just-cooked shrimp bring out the inherent sweetness behind the jolt of pickled ramps. The bright flavors ramp up a creamy, earthy green risotto, dusted with Parmesan and studded with melted ramp greens. Bulbous agnolotti ($14), stuffed with tender short rib sprinkled with Parmesan and bathed in sage butter, are a denser version than most—a $14 pasta that eats like an entree. The doughy pockets are crimped at the edges with the care of a creepy adult doll house hobbyist.
A selection of desserts are on offer, as well as gelato ($8 for 3 scoops) and baked goods from sister cafe Stellina next door. The gelato comes in some pretty awesome flavors, like Banananimal (banana gelato with caramel-coated animal crackers) and Chunky Sorella (salted caramel gelato with chocolate-covered pretzels and fudge), and they have enough butterfat to be mistaken for frozen custard—but disappointingly, the scoops we tried all bordered on being cloyingly sweet.
When fries, pizza or nearby-Chinatown just won't do, Sorella is a logical next step up from greasier midnight snacks.
About the author: Zachary Feldman is a former debutante and current freelance writer. He makes hand-crafted, small batch bitters under the moniker Bitters, Old Men.