February 20, 2017 | BITE: My Journal
Paola’s: In a Family Way
There are roses on every table at Paola’s and pretty service plates and waiters who favor their regulars.
My uptown eastside friends the Puros are regulars at Paola’s. It’s the Manhattan institution you might not know on the corner of Madison and 92nd, a favorite of the neighborhood. I’m joining Karen at a preferred table tonight – the big round at the back looking out at the crowd even though we’re only two. An indulgent waiter is fussing, presenting the olives as if they were emeralds and delivering bread almost surreptitiously, as if we are the only table that can have any.
Start with slightly bitter, light green chicory puntarella dressed in a sharp vinaigrette with garlic and anchovy.
We’ve both ordered puntarelle to start (at $18 each). It’s that slightly bitter, light green chicory that I recall as the star of the winter greens in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori market, rarely seen in New York. Now suddenly, I’ve come across it twice in a week, dressed Roman style, with olive oil, garlic, and anchovies, in an extra etching of vinegar.
Paola’s crisp fried artichokes have always been considered a must by the uptown savvy.
We agree to share the carciofi, a rash commitment, since it turns out to be two small bulbs smashed and fried -- enough to fill one cheek. Karen recommends the cacio e pepe. But I’m hungry for trofie Genovesi, the hand- rolled pasta of Livorno, with basil pesto, potatoes, string beans, and toasted pine nuts.
Cacio e pepe is the pasta Paola’s regulars insist I try. First time, it’s wonderful. Second time, very salty.
The waiter ignores my bleats and brings me cacio e pepe along with a sampling of spinach malfatti in a voluptuous tomato sauce – one fat dumpling for each of us. I share my force-fed noodles with Karen, who eats several strands as if that’s all she has room for, while I devour my diminished portion. It is richly glazed and delicious. I promise myself I’ll get the desired trofie next time.
A surprise gift from the kitchen is a luscious spinach malfatti in a superlative tomato sauce.
Karen is persuaded we should share profiteroles, too, lush little puffs splattered with dark chocolate.
Waiters dart about catering to their upper eastside pets and serving newcomers inbetween.
Paola’s has been an upper east side destination for decades, though I’ve not been since I first discovered it at 347 East 85th Street in 1985, and wrote about it in a series called That’s Italian: The Grand, The Hot, and the New. It was already a popular local.
“Watching Paula Marracino (then) tending her flock in the cramped, narrow storefront that is Paola’s makes me think this is one happy family,” I reported. “There are seats for only 32. Arrive before your table vacates and you will stand like a sardine in a smidgen of space between the cloak-room and the fridge, struggling to stay clear of the kitchen scrimmage.”
The shell shaped pasta cavatelli is tossed with sweet sausage and sautéed broccoli rabe.
At my first dinner, the pastas were spectacular. I begin sending friends to Paola’s. At a second outing, a series of dismal pastas had me puzzled. How could the creator of a sublime fettuccine with shrimp and crab in cream sauce, dazzling rich manicotti, and a blessing of fusilli with vegetables in tomato-flecked cream suddenly produce such leathery noodles? I needed a knife to cut the manicotti. “My guess is we’re in the hands of novices here,” I decided.
The first Paola’s in 1985 barely had room for attendees. Now on Carnegie Hill, there’s a lively bar.
But given mythically huge portions of hearty fare and gentle prices – half pastas $5, entrées $10.95 to $17.50 – I recommended it anyway, singling out the robust bean and escarole soup, a riotous jumble of hot antipasti, odd breaded liver, chicken with sausage, and grapes nestled in zabaglione. “Try the pasta,” I added. “There’s a fifty-fifty chance it will be wonderful.”
Osso buco Milanese with saffron risotto is the special one evening, irresistible to my companion.
Paola’s son Stefano runs the current upgrade atop Carnegie Hill on the corner of 92nd Street, where rustic red tile floors and bare wood tabletops do nothing to muffle the noise. Although, not everyone adds to the din. I notice some senior couples that don’t have anything to say to each other all evening.
My friend selects an $80 Re’Manfredi Aglianico 2012 for $80. No complaint from me as I’m his guest.
I like that there are red roses on every table, and it’s good to see professional waiters instead of untrained ingénues winging it, even if your waiter may disappear when a regular demands attention. The wine glasses are graceful. The pours are generous. Inside the regular menu is a page of changing specials. I especially like that.
Tuscan style chicken livers with sautéed onion are a daily special served on a bed of soft polenta.
My friends are happy to join me again a few weeks later. I’m early and I can see Karen is not pleased at the table I’ve been allotted as an unrecognized outlander. Is there something about me that advertises I’m a visiting westsider? Sometimes, it’s the teeth. But I have marvelous teeth.
Tuscan style chicken livers on soft polenta heads the specials list tonight. Neil reminds me to ask for the livers rare if I don’t want them gray. “Oh Neil,” I say, “Did you read my mind? Yes, rare please.”
Seared calamari is topped with aromatic bread crumbs, olive oil and a squirt of lemon in an iron pan.
Plump Maine mussels in a light tomato sauce – also on the daily roster – are especially impressive because I’ve been served scrawny ones, not worth scraping from the shell, twice recently. Neil’s calamari are seared and crumbed and served in a cast iron pan. Karen who had requested the kitchen do spinach malfatti again when she called for the table is clearly upset that her wish has been ignored.
Trofie are handmade Ligurian pasta served with potatoes, string beans, pine nuts and basil pesto, Genoa-style.
Neil is hungry after some days on the road and decides on the special osso buco alla Milanese as an entrée. The thought of it makes me hungry, too. I find the saffron risotto is fine, but the meat is stringy and bland. Clearly pasta is what you order here. I love my trofie asked for and delivered at last. At the end, our chocolate tartufo is lush and rich, my lemon tart quite elegant.
I never met a chocolate tartufo I didn’t like, but this one is especially lush. Get out of the way and I’ll finish it.
Paola’s may still feel like family, but prices have become rather grand since Ruth Reichl gave it two stars and declared it the perfect neighborhood restaurant in February 1997. Though antipasti salads start now at $14, pastas are mostly $26 or $28, up to $32 for fettucine with porcini. And entrees hit $46 for a veal chop. Ten-dollar desserts are priced to shatter resistance.
What a surprise. The spinach malfatti is on the special menu tonight. Of course, we’ll have it.
Ruth favored the pastas too, although at the moment, the filled pastas she singled out -- casunziei and pansotti -- have disappeared. Only the ravioli remains, filled with veal and spinach on the regular menu, or tonight as a special with lobster.
After I complained I was charged $12 for olives and grana my friends got free, I noticed them as a menu option.
Back again a few days later, I’m assigned to the front of the room again, right next to the door, in fact. I feel the ignominy of not belonging. When the waiter does not bring the same olives and grana chunks my friends received, I ask for them. ($12 on our bill, I notice.)
It’s not the delicate vitello tonnato I expected, but Paola’s is a generous portion that could serve our three.
Noting that vitello tonnato on the specials list is usually a summer dish, one of my companions orders it. I am visualizing the tonnato at the Italian Pavilion when it was the book-world’s roost, before it became Michael’s. Usually a delicate, creamed tuna is spread on a plate under thin slices of veal. But tonight, the tuna is a thick paste in a saucer alongside many thick slices of veal. Strange, but edible.
Scallops, shrimp, calamari in the evening’s special seafood salad taste remarkably fresh, minutes from the sea.
My seafood salad starter is a generous toss of scallops, shrimp, calamari, and rucola, wondrously fresh, in a wine vinaigrette. The three of us agree that the “traditional” eggplant Parmigiana with its sweet tart tomato sauce is excellent.
It’s not my favorite eggplant parm (that’s at Lincoln Ristorante) but it first-rate on the daily special list.
Alas, the cacio e pepe is wildly salty tonight. But the cavatelli with sausage and broccoli rabe is fine and the spinach malfatti brilliant as remembered. It seems the pasta conundrum persists. How did the chocolate mousse get so tiny and wan? Ask for the tartufo if chocolate is the yearning. Tonight’s special strawberry shortcake makes up for the disappointment. I’m so grateful we live in an era when exquisitely sweet strawberries are available in the dead of winter.
The pastry chef honors Paola’s regulars with really ripe berries on the $12 strawberry shortcake.
1295 Madison Avenue, entrance a few steps east on East 92nd Street. 212 794 1890. Lunch Monday through Friday 11 am to 4 pm. Brunch Saturday 11 am to 4 pm; Sunday 10 am to 4 pm. Dinner Sunday and Monday 5 to 10 pm. Tuesday through Saturday to 11 pm. Stuzzichini “Light Bites” 4 to 6 pm.
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