284 Grand Street, Brooklyn NY 11211 (near Roebling; map); 718-782-8222
Must-Haves: Lardo pizza; cavatelli with broccoli rabe and sausage; skirt steak with salsa verde; fried calamari and zucchini
What You'll Spend: $30 for two courses, a glass of wine, tax, and tip
Remember back in the day, when going out to eat an Italian meal in New York was not an extravagance or much of a financial commitment? Those were the days of red sauce; chicken, veal, and eggplant parm; lasagna and baked ziti; baked clams and fried zucchini; of an Italian meal that cost less than $25 a head.
Then real authentic fancy-pants northern Italian food appeared in New York when Lidia and Felix Bastianich opened Felidia in 1981. Ten years ago Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich opened Babbo, and now the city is awash with first-rate expensive Italian restaurants. Don't get me wrong. I love the food at Del Posto, Scarpetta, Alto, Fiamma, and the like, but, oh how I long for the first-rate, authentically Italian, seriously delicious Italian repast that doesn't dent the wallet quite so heavily.
Enter Giancarlo Quadalti. Quadalti, the chef-partner at the fine, unheralded Teodora on East 57th Street, is a well-seasoned, incredibly talented Italian chef (from Emilia Romagna) who wants all of us serious eaters to eat terrific Italian food and not pay through the nose for it. He has done that at Celeste on the Upper West Side, Bianca in the East Village, and now he has even raised his game with Fiore in Williamsburg, which he opened with the equally talented chef-partner Roberto Aita (Roc) in a building that Quadalti lives in, above the restaurant. Fiore might be the best Italian food bargain in town.
A Winning--and Inexpensive--Formula
Quadalti has a formula for his restaurants. He doesn't spend a lot of money on decor and design, he looks for spaces with reasonable rent, he doesn't have a pastry chef, and his places are usually all cash.
Fiore fits the Quadalti MO. It has brick walls with shelves holding Italian bric a brac, small, inexpensive but reasonably comfortable chairs and tables, and even a garden. Pastas are $10 or less, the most expensive main course is $16, portions range from substantial to huge, and desserts are $5 and $6.
The grilled pizzas are terrific at Fiore (though I wish they had a little more lift), none more so than the one with lardo di colonnata and thin slices of Parmesan ($10).
The calamaretti fritti ($6) is a mountain of greaseless, crisp calamari and zucchini with a a few fresh herbs tossed into the fryer for good measure.
Polipetti brasati ($6), tender braised octopus in a tangy tomato sauce, is tender enough and tastes like the sea. It would not be the octopus dish to try to convert non-octopus eaters.
House-made cavatelli with broccoli rabe and sausage is soulful elemental Italian cooking. The cavatelli is perfectly al dente, the broccoli rabe is tender yet firm, and the sausage lends the dish a fine porky character.
The lasagna Aita is serving is not the classic Bolognese-style Quadalti serves at Teodora, but it is damn fine nonetheless--cheesy, tangy and sweet with bits of cooked vegetables between the layers of bolognese-bechamel mixture, Parmesan, and pasta. Fish meatballs are served with spaghetti as a special, and they are mild-tasting and interesting only for their novelty. For the ultimate fishball and pasta experience, head over to Esca for Dave Pasternack's tuna meatballs.
Skirt steak, cut up into Lincoln log–like slices and served with a killer olive-and-caper-accented salsa verde dipping sauce, is a ridiculous bargain at $16, as it could easily serve two. It comes with cubes of sautéed roasted potatoes that were just a little too salty.
If you're feeling randy, get a side order of fries to go with your steak. They're addictive with their little bits of fried rosemary and garlic.
Puntine di Maiale e Caponta in Agrodolce ($13) are oven-roasted spare ribs with an Italian dry-rub crust served with an extremely tasty caponata that's mercifully not reduced to mush.
Desserts at Fiore are pleasantly diverting and homey. If a well-trained Italian cook lived in your house, these might be the desserts you would be eating. Torta di Cioccolato e Mandorle ($5), chocolate and almond cake (really a torta Caprese), was sufficiently chocolatey and light but not dry. A lemon tart with fresh berries ($4) (much more French than Italian) was rich with custardy egg yolks and just tart enough, Torta di Mele ($4), called an "apple pie" on the menu, tastes of the northern Italian border near Switzerland (where Aita spent many years cooking).
With Fiore, Quadalti and Aita have shown New York Italian chefs and restaurateurs that it's possible to serve seriously delicious, authentic Italian food made with good ingredients at ridiculously reasonable prices. May other Italian chefs and restaurateurs take note and copy their formula.
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