The first thing I tasted at Pagani, the newly minted Italian restaurant on the corner of Bleecker and 7th, was Charred Octopus ($14). Three tentacles crowned a salad of potatoes, roasted grape tomatoes, and black olives. All of it was dressed in an orange vinaigrette that wrapped salty olives and briny octopus in a slightly sweet blanket. No reinvention of the wheel, but for anyone who's cooked octopus knows, the cephalopod can be a derelict in the kitchen. There's something to be said of any chef who takes aim at tender and balance of flavor and hits the bullseye.
Next was Warmed Buffalo Mozzarella ($10). "Homemade" is a better selling point then "Warmed," especially when the cheese, though fresh and delicate, doesn't live up to the adjective. The herb puree that's splashed onto the cheese before it leaves the kitchen is fresh too, but tries to play the lead and muffles the milky cheese. The best mozz show in town is still down on on Grand Street.
Balance showed up again in the Apple Fennel Salad ($10). Pistachios crunched every now and again with bits of soft, salty feta that seemed to melt into the spicy Ligurian olive oil that dressed everything in an appetizing sheen. There was more arugula than fennel, which was sort of a bummer. The menu lists arugula, but it's in small print. My hope was for a few leaves, not a bounty. Not because the arugula wasn't fresh and peppery, but because the relationship between apples and fennel is too strong for a third wheel, and the arugula comes off as filler.
In the second half of the meal, forks cut through tender, eggy, homemade pasta dough with ease. Why there would be an asparagus option on the tail end of a polar vortex confuses me, but if the tortelloni themselves are as yellow and delightfully chewy as the ravioli in the Ravioli Cacciatore ($19), I suppose guests with less vigor for seasonal ingredients might look passed the issue. It's a good thing the pasta was as good as it was, because the stewed chicken, mushrooms, red peppers, and olives—advertised as the ravioli's filling—were placed with a rather stingy hand. The same one, I imagine, was stingy with salt too.
Shortly after we bit into the Pork Tenderloin ($23), the conversation turned to the salt shortage in New Jersey and how the risotto tasted like a home-cook's first attempt at the starchy rice dish. Though tenderloin was generously cut for the occasion, the best part of the entrée was its reduction: rich, dark, seasoned well and satisfying. If there was a dash more of it it may have been enough to save the plate.
Many of the cracks in Pagani's model can be patched by their price point. The space, once home to O. Pagani Music Dealers, is littered with remnants of the past (victrolas, accordions, and beautiful hanging light fixtures suggestive of old studio mics) that do much to charm guests upon entry to the historic building. There's hope at 289 Bleecker. But in a city, let alone a street, so rich with options and Italian culture, Pagani won't stand out with the flag at half-mast.
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