February 15, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

PopUp Faustina

These giant prawns come couturier wrapped in lardo. Photo: Steven Richter
These giant prawns come couturier-wrapped in lardo. Photo: Steven Richter

        Faster than a speeding bullet…speedier than a flying mortadella. Like a rerun of his Food Network show, “24 hour Restaurant Battle” -- where two contestants must whip up a restaurant from concept to tablecloths in 24 hours – matinee idol and starred veteran Scott Conant rolled his full-blown Faustina into the Cooper Square Hotel seemingly overnight. Indeed, Govind Armstrong’s doomed Table 8 had vacated just four weeks earlier the night I arrive.  It’s still too dark for me and the new entrance is not easily found, but in the name of the Goddess, who gets the only memorial to a woman in the Roman Forum, Conant has warmed the dining room up a bit with shades of gray and flashes of red, banquettes and bare tables, some sound-proofing that tames what was insufferable din, and Jeff Tascarella, his right hand GM from Scarpetta, on the floor.

The reconfigured Cooper Square bar is now a breakfast room too. Photo: Steven Richter

        In less than a week, with a night off for the birth of his first child, our first visit, wouldn’t you know, his mostly Italian small dishes are almost all good or very good. Cosmically tender octopus – an olive-oil poached octopod of voluptuous texture with slices of fingerlings. Brawny prawns, impeccably cooked, in coutourier lardo wraps with a puddle of rosemary lentils. A $9 contorni (vegetable side) of eggplant enriched with pork shoulder.

Here’s the sensory bomb: grilled ciabatta with duck egg in fonduta. Photo: Steven Richter

        And he’s come up with a new sensory bomb rivaling his signature marscarpone polenta with wild mushrooms.  It’s lurking innocently in the Bread & Olives category on the menu: grilled ciabatta with poached duck egg and fonduta. Don’t lose track of it in the grab bag of options.  Smash the tremulous egg. Then drag chunks of thick grilled bread through that rich egg-glossed cheese melt, shivering with foodiotic pleasure, perhaps even whimpering as we are tonight.

Looking past the heart of the dining room toward the window tables. Photo: Steven Richter

        If you are a Conant fan, you’ll see quickly enough, this is not a Scarpetta clone. Faustina is a new notion, “food I would cook at home for friends, or sitting around after work,” is how he describes it. There is no freebie bread basket. You’ll have to order the killer ciabatta and the stromboli, rolled dough filled with proscuitto and smoked mozzarella, just $5, enough for the table, keeping warm in a folded napkin. Indeed, even warming and stuffing a few olives proves magical. A salty bite is suddenly sexy.

Crudi dressed for the runway: lobster sucsi and kanpachi with porcini and garlic chips. Photo: Steven Richter

        Crudo or oysters from the raw bar ($12 to $15) is the next logical choice in organizing a meal. Conant was an early missionary of Italianizing sashimi. Raw fish, rarely eaten in Italy before American chefs jumped on the sashimi-go-round doesn’t need a passport anymore. What’s the difference between sashimi and crudo? Sashimi is about the fish. Crudo is about the chef. From the simplicity and pristine perfection we discovered at Esca in whatever arrived that afternoon from chef David Pasternak’s Long Island fishing pals, we’ve moved on to full mega fuss. Here, cubes of tuna and avocado are fat-times-two, twice as delicious. I’m a fan of that slightly slimey stickiness of raw lobster or here in esculent spot prawns with arugula. Scallop carpaccio and caviar can have that sublime goo factor too, before citrus “cooks” it through. I’ll be back for seconds of showgirl crudo even though most are very salty and tonight’s kanpachi with porcini and garlic chips might have been accidently salted twice.

Eggplant with pork shoulder and balsamic-glazed spare ribs. Photo Steven Richter

        I thought it might be a bit rash when the chef told the Times his tajarin noodles with tomatoes and sea urchin was “sex in a bowl.” Personally, I never confuse sex and food, but for those that do, there is good sex and then there is great sex. I’d like a more heady sea urchin hit here. Burrata in carozza with trickles of green bagna cauda sauce poured on top is not as lush as I expected from my childhood memories of mozzarella in carozza. (I suppose that was junk food and this is designer-driven).  The burrata-stuffed cannelloni gets lost in the cheesy goo of their black iron baking pan. I’m the only one at our table who likes the balsamic-glazed pork spare rib – well, maybe it is too sharply vinegared. Are you four? Try sharing three ribs without risking divorce. (By the way all the dishes and black ironware are good-looking.)

It’s not Italian. It’s fried chicken on the menu because we love it. Photo: Steven Richter

        Back just a few days later, I can already see a difference. Conant is back too. The dining staff is more confident, the roving suits as slick as ever, and the kitchen seems in firmer control. Now the previously flabby black truffle risotto with egg and sea urchin has a bite at the core of each kernel. Sexy or not, all of us are enjoying the artisanal spaghetti properly al dente with octopus ragu. And can cabbage be sexy? Slightly al dente and scented with truffle, it’s not to be missed.  At $16 a modest portion of short ribs with delicious spaetzle is enough to divide into four small tastes. And $14 worth of fried chicken, a small thigh and a breast, ignites conflict among our dark meat lovers even though both parts are richly battered and moist. It’s not Italian, of course, but if Andrew Carmellini can make a night of fried chicken at Locanda Verde, why not? Just try to book his Fried Chicken Monday Night.

Desserts are tricked up like this fancy apple strudel. Photo: Steven Richter

        It’s easy to get carried away. Small plates say order more.  Conant has read our psyches like the veteran tempter he is. You want to try everything. There are piatti grande too – pork chop, a steak, veal porterhouse $31 to $39. Conant says some older customers want their own dishes. But our foursome is trying for a not too expensive night out. Even so, we’ve eaten too much to consider more than one dessert to share. Shall it be the very sweet torrone panna cotta nougat with honey caramel, the countrified apple strudel, or pear semifreddo? With just two glasses of wine and sharing the waiter’s favorite dessert -- date pudding with prune ice cream -- the four of us have spent just $50 per person.  Though with cocktails and a bottle of wine or two it would be a different story.

         Faustina popped up overnight but it seems to have a formula for a long stay.

25 Cooper Square between 5th and 6th Streets. 212 475 3400. Breakfast 6:30 to 11 am. Lunch 11:30 am to 2:30 pm.  Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm; Friday and Saturday to midnight.

Cafe Fiorello