February 7, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

Patricia’s: The Son Also Rises

Ricotta-beet gnocchi in zucchini-mostarda crema with pecorino. Photo: Steven Richter
Ricotta-beet gnocchi in zucchini-mostarda crema with pecorino. Photo: Steven Richter

        A blizzard is threatening to hit at midnight. We have been spirited away to somewhere in the Bronx. Even the Bronx-born Road Food Warrior is not sure where we are. “Wanna-make-sumpin’-outta-dat?” Seems this vast sweep of dining room with crystal chandeliers, splashy paintings and votives in brick wall niches is the two-month-old Patricia’s, makeover of a popular pizzeria. A sturdy young man with a shiny shaved head is pouring very hot and intensely truffled mushroom soup over slivers of three ‘shrooms sailing a crisp parmesan tuile. This zuppa di funghi is thrilling.

Scallop in a raw sweet pea foam with applewood smoked bacon. Photo: Steven Richter

        And so is a single tremulous sea scallop in sweet pea puree with shiitakes, cipolline onion and chips of apple smoked bacon – a jewel set off with a last minute drizzle of Sicilian olive oil and a pinch of pink Himalayan sea salt. Yes, there’s a modestly priced menu of Italian familiars too (entrees $16 to $28) but we’re here for the pyrotechnics of the constantly changing chef’s tasting.

Chef Alessandro Borgognone pours an intense distillation of mushroom. Photo: Steven Richter

        The devout son of Naples who has delivered us grins with pride and pours me another few ounces of Taurasi. He is my tasting pal, Francesco, the wanton Don Juan of the Italian wine world whose seduction-at-table moves challenge romantic cliches. Lately Francesco has been on the road promoting his nectars, so this summons to bridge-and-tunnel travel is a surprise. Since it was Francesco who once brought me to a fussy Italian restaurant on Long Island to taste the food of a gifted young Greek named Michael Psilakis, I don’t say: “The Bronx? Are you kidding?” Indeed, with Francesco’s Neapolitan hunger navigating, we are parked on Morris Park Avenue outside the place in less than 20 minutes. He introduces us to Alessandro “Alex” Borgognone (“Yes, I must have some French in there too”). Mother Patricia is Neapolitan. Grandpapa is from Palermo. Alex didn’t know he was a cook till he started cooking and moved into his father’s six-year-old pizza parlor next door in l999 to do the food he liked to eat.

A confetti of raw vegetables adds crunch to lamb chop Milanese. Photo: Steven Richter

        “Personally, I feel more Neapolitan,” he confides with an appealing mix of exuberance and bashful modesty. It took almost two years to build the many splendored version where we sit next door to the shuttered pizzeria. Father Calogero Borgognone, a veteran of Veniero’s in Manhattan, does all the breads and desserts here.

The kitchen team watches chef “Alex” plating our tasting dinner. Photo: Steven Richter

        “I’m giving you a tasting of everything,” young Borgognone warns. “So, don’t eat the bread.”

         Not eat the bread? Crusty and grainy wheat bread, homemade, warm in a napkin. Impossible! Though I will regret that second slice several courses later long before I confront the greaseless, crisp Milanese battered lamb chop topped with a crunchy rubble of chopped raw vegetables – carrots, sweet peppers, red onion, zucchini and fennel. Butter is the secret of that clean tasting crispness, he says. Buttermilk-rich mozzarella – the lushest burrata I’ve ever tasted -- “just arrived from Bari today,” follows, served with scattered red ovals of grape tomatoes -- surprisingly lively for winter. “From South Carolina,” says Alex.

         They must be in demand, I suggest.

The new Patricia’s: Crystal chandeliers, splashes of art, brightly lit kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter

        “My brother sells produce at Hunt’s Point. We know everybody. We get what we want.”

         A classic interruption next, the house’s braised tripe is so remarkably tender in its fruity tomato-onion-garlic soffrito with mint and julienne of pecorino that even my guy, who doesn’t eat tripe, is devouring every morsel.

        Francesco is on a “Naples as Paradise” rant. As he tells it, Naples is the boot we see on the map and all the rest of Italy merely shoelaces. Beet-pink ricotta gnocchi in zucchini and mostarda coulis briefly distracts him. “I have been thinking about these gnocchi all day,” he confides with a certain reverence. For me, the sweet elegance of the chef’s squid ink and cuttlefish risotto is a marvel too. Even given supposedly small portions, my endurance is flagging by the time the shrimp and mahi mahi spiedini arrives – a blip in the evening’s dazzle and overcooked as well.

Veteran Alessandro D’Alessi, Alex’s right hand man, runs the kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter

        At Francesco’s urging, Borgognone joins us at the table for his own dinner, grilled fish buried in vegetables. “Someone told me I need to diet if I want to keep my wife,” he explains, directing his chef de cuisine Alessandro D’Alessi to take a bow.

         “But we haven’t had pizza,” Francesco complains. “She must taste your pizza.”

         “We’re not a pizzeria anymore,” Alex protests. And then he pushes the fish away. “I’ll join you. My wife can find another guy if she doesn’t like me the way I am,” he announces. A swath of the burrata from Bari dotted with those aristocratic grape tomatoes arrives on a small round, beautifully blistered. I cannot believe I am eating pizza after that sophisticated tasting. Indeed. Francesco is a barbarian and we are matching him, I am afraid.

The house still does pizza on command. This one is family size. Photo: Steven Richter

        “For me the dough is too soft and too salty,” I confess.

         “Too salty, yes, but soft is perfect.” Francesco rails against Americans who don’t appreciate Neapolitan pies, the gold standard of pizza. In my honor a firmer and crisper margarita version is produced.

Real Neapolitan pizza, blistered, charred and too soft for me. Photo: Steven Richter

        Even Steven is groaning now. And then dessert is served: poached pears with a too sweet Port sauce and a cube of dazzling sweet gorgonzola.

         “Where is the chocolate?” Francesco asks. “I can’t end the day without chocolate.”

         D’Alessi, energized by signs of surviving appetite goes off to the kitchen, returning with tumblers layered with rich vanilla ice cream and whipped cream atop the molten flow of flourless chocolate cake. It tastes a little like the hot fudge of my childhood.

Papa Calogero Borgognone’s classic cannoli are always in demand. Photo: Steven Richter

        Actually, our evening has been a lot about childhood. Steven’s Bronx. Francesco’s Neapolitan mother. Me with my mom Saralee at the luncheonette counter in the Sanders, the downtown Detroit confectionary that is no more, my tuna sandwich a prologue for the hot fudge sundae that will follow. Alessandro Borgognone growing up in a house with a little garden in the yard, watching his grandmother make gnocchi. “I believe we have at Patricia’s the largest cellar in the outer boroughs: 500 bottles, 7000 wines. Am I a pioneer with these dishes? I don’t think so,” he says. “Still, I don’t mean to brag, but now the Bronx has a fine restaurant.”

         1082 Morris Park Avenue between Haight and Lurting Avenues. 718 409 9069 Lunch Monday to Friday 11 am till 3 pm. Dinner Sunday to Thursday 5 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday 11 am till midnight. A classic Neapolitan family dinner served on Sundays.

Patina Restaurant Group