January 18, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Maialino: Pig Off in the Park

Pastas to share: tonnarelli cacio e peppe. spaghetti vongole and malfatti with pig and arugula. Photo: Steven Richter
Pastas to share: spaghetti vongole, tonnarelli cacio e peppe and malfatti with pig and arugula. Photo: Steven Richter

        I brace for the roar of the bar at Maialino, another notch on Danny Meyer’s belt. But quickly a host leads us past the melée, beyond the eye-catching bread-and-dessert staging area and the salumi kitchen into the comparative calm of the trattoria dining room. A friend pops up from a nearby table, kiss kiss, and then, as we wait for our antipasto, he passes his order of sucking pig to our table. (Maialino means suckling pig and was also Meyer’s nickname when he worked for his father’s travel company in Rome, reflecting an early piggy passion.)  It’s a daunting platter, “$72 for 2 or 3,” the menu indicates. I help myself to a shard of crisp skin, a juicy chunk of meat, and some stringy pieces. Yes, it’s splendid.  But given so many lusty pig-outs in the year of the porker (or are we in for a decade?), I don’t crave more. I now feel free to tackle the menu.

 
The restaurant’s namesake for 2 or 3, crisp-skinned suckling pig. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s my second visit, but a first for my fellow Top Chef judge Gail Simmons. So together we’re sharing new dishes and a few I first tasted in November. It would be mean to deny her the deep fried artichokes with anchovy bread dipping sauce – a creamy potion I’m using to make the house’s slightly elastic focaccia more edible. I urge her to taste the marvelous twiggy-thin cheese flavored bread sticks from the house basket. And I let her order the panelle alla gricia –guanciale pecorino rolls - even though I’m prepared to hate them.  They were blowsy and unpleasant cinnamon bun-like things the first time I tried one at $3 each. Surprise. Now they are delicious little savories, smaller, served warm, two for $3.

I can’t imagine dinner without fried artichokes and anchovy-bread sauce. Photo: Steven Richter

        As the heralded arrival of the holiday season, a Danny Meyer effort ordained by the fussy Ian Schraeger to follow ill-fated Wakiya in this odd space, opening night in November was high wattage with Anna Wintour, Ruth Reichl, Dana Cowin and Alain Ducasse in house, just in case the kitchen needed extra stress. Some nights later when I got friends to claim a table, it was clearly too soon to write about. I’m not into killing new restaurants based on one early meal.

In the middle of it all, a busy bread, dessert and coffee station. Photo: Steven Richter

        I loved the rustic country look of the place – a world away from the dramatic Charles Addams Victoriana of the Gramercy Park Hotel lobby where we wait for our table – and inhale the smoke from the fireplace. I admire the intricate floor of the bar, a signature detail from architect David Rockwell, inspired, the chef says, by Meyer’s vision of the Pantheon floor. And given the price of real estate, I have to marvel at the view of the park across the street and at the luxury of space devoted to the bread and dessert station and opposite, the meat department. The kitschy collection of leaf and park related art work on the wall is amusing too.  Blue and white checked tablecloths?  Why not? This restaurant stands on its own, apart from the hotel, the look says, emphasized by its own separate entrance. From time to time, a scent of smoke from the wood-burning oven wafts by here too, a subliminal link to the lobby. 

In this upscale rustic trttoria, it’s quieter and bright enough to read. Photo: Steven Richter

        But quite frankly, nothing I ate that first evening made me hunger to come back except the lush raviolo wrapped around a poached egg chef Nick Anderer sent as a gift. Tonight I see what Anderer has learned in six weeks. Another voluptuous poached egg waits to give its all to a fine bottarga (mullet roe) strewn salad with celery root. The fried artichokes on brown butcher paper are as good as remembered. And the crunchy Roman winter green, puntarelle, sent out as lagniappe, is simple and perfect.  But salt overwhelms the spaghetti vongole. And as anyone who’s been to Rome, maybe everyone who’s eaten in a Roman restaurant and has her own idea of what a carbonara should be, Gail and I want more guanciale, more egg.  “But I love the black pepper,” she says.

  A silken chunk of olive-oil poached halibut shimmers in tomato sauce. Photo: Steven Richter

        Another giveaway from the chef, the uneven cuts of noodle called malfatti, tossed with suckling pig under a hedge of arugula is the pasta we’ll remember. Olive oil poached halibut shimmers handsomely and is almost as rare as we want it, but the menu promised ferro stew, not the few pebbles of grain in this tomato sauce. Steven seems happy enough with the small lamb chops Scottadito with radicchio but I’m disappointed the kitchen couldn’t figure out how to caramelize them and still keep the meat rare.

         The three of us contentedly devouring the lemony custard of the torta nonna are taken aback by the fiercely citric reduction painted on the plate. An accident perhaps?  But I’d vote this tartufo with chocolate shavings over deep chocolate ice cream and a core of brandied cherries better than anything I’ve tasted recently in the Piazza Navona, where I nearly fainted over my first frozen tartufo on my honeymoon.

This photo captures the stylish floor but not the noisy press of people crowding the bar. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Last week we go back to check out the bar menu. Like Gramercy Tavern, Maialino’s entry is chockablock with small bare tables, two-tops, eating ledges and tiny rounds as well as stools at the bar proper.  We seem to be the only foursome waiting.  “I have a four that’s just finishing,” the manager greets us.  My friend and I settle on a window sill trying to talk above the shout and cackle of happy drinkers. Our restless mates wander off to escape the din. “Would you like to sit in the trattoria?” a floor manager asks. I explain we’ve come to eat in the bar.  But at the 45 minute mark – with the “just finishing foursome still lingering” -- and my friends growing indignant, I agree we’ll order from the bar menu wherever they put us.

         Good move too. We can talk without shouting.  And for the first time I’m actually loving chef Anderer’s food. The first dish to arrive, two to an order and tomato sauce for dipping - suppli al telefono: fried rice croquettes with a heart of mozzarella that melts and stretches into “telephone wires” - shuts off the complaints. Carciofini fritti again, consistently good. Swordfish belly sliced in small square, “rare” as requested, is elegant on rather scant fennel purée.

Bucatini in spicy Amatriciana sauce with guanciale. Photo: Steven Richter

        Normally in the bar, dishes come willy-nilly as the kitchen finishes them.  I have asked if we can have dinner in two waves -- with pastas and the oddly appealing zuppa of pickled mushrooms and bay scallops with salsify chips as the second course. That may explain the delay between the arrival of fabulous green lasagna Bolognese and satisfyingly rich and savory and salty tonnarelli cacio e pepe (pecorino and black pepper). The Treviso style radicchio in red wine vinaigrette and olive oil could be more wilted.

       The chef appears at our table (okay, I agree, this is not the way to review a restaurant) just as the four of us discover we’re still hungry. It takes another longish while and then we’re sharing marvelously juicy chunks of pork in a Ciabatta sandwich  (I have an image of the chef himself selecting each perfect chunk). Fatty hunks of oxtail with Swiss chard are delicious too, infinitely superior to the coda alla vaccinara of our earliest tasting that made me long for Lupa’s version with the greenery on top.
 
       “We still have a lot of work to do,” Anderer is quick to say, contemplating lunch recently added to the house’s breakfast duties, and ultimately room service.  I agree with him, but for now, the staff is already in that fine anything-you-say and thank-you-for-coming Meyer service mode. And the kitchen is definitely sharper. Meanwhile, food-loving and heat-seeking wayfarers from all zip codes who manage to break through the reservation blockage will decide if it’s worth a detour.

Maialino 2 Lexington Avenue  at 21st Street 212 777 2410.  Trattoria: Breakfast Monday to Friday 7 to 10 am.  Lunch Monday to Friday noon to 2 pm. Brunch Satursday and Sunday 1- am to 2 pm. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10”30 pm. Friday ad Saturday to 11 pm.
Bar Maialino serves continuously breakfast through dinner. Monday to Friday 7 am to midnight. Saturday and Sunday 10 am to midnight.
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