May 6, 2019 | BITE: My Journal
Avena Hits the Road and the Road Hits Avena
If there is a fritto misto on the menu, guaranteed, I will order it.
My friend Bob discovered Avena on East 57th Street first. He was having lunch there every day when he alerted me. It turned out to be a great tip. Five of us, crowded around a small tablecloth-draped round in the lower level of this narrow townhouse, agreed. “Pricey, maybe, but very good and pretty with a cosmetic pink glow from Edison bulbs and an orchid in a small glass on every table,” I wrote in Feeling My Oats at Avena in June, 2017. Click here to read it.
The Avena bread basket looks like a celebration. I will probably ask for extra breadsticks.
Even the bread basket is special, abundant with irresistible breadstick twigs, and the flavorful zuppe as an amuse is remarkable too. It might be yellow tomato gazpacho with streaks of burrata in a generous bowl as the summer harvest invades. At first, host Giselle Deiaco seems hesitant, shy or confused taking our order, and her husband in the kitchen can be slow too.
I wonder how good Avena will be when chef Robert Avena moves on to another incarnation.
Robert Deiaco, most recently the executive chef at Armani Ristorante, had come to New York to work at Palio in the mid-‘90s. He opened East 12 Osteria in 2013. I never noticed it. The Financial Times called it one of the five best Italian restaurants in New York.
Veal cheeks on crispy pan fried saffron risotto is on the Osteria menu.
Ravioli filled with fresh ricotta and quail egg yolk will have flutters of fresh Perigord truffles when in season.
Now his wildly rich ricotta-and-quail-egg-filled pasta packages with truffles quickly chase away any puffs of annoyance at the fits and starts. I come again with affluent friends and they return on their own. My review following a series of delicious meals seemed to draw new fans. I could no longer get a table on short notice without using my real name.
There’s a street barricade in front of the entrance to Avena/Downtown but aim the camera for a shot anyway.
There are antiqued mirrors on the brick wall and light that runs along the footboard in the back room.
Ultimately, I move on to new discoveries. Then I get a call from Bob just a few weeks ago reporting that uptown Avena had been sabotaged by a leak that would cost $80,000 to fix. Giselle and Robert Deiaco have opened Avena/Downtown where Da Silvano used to be in the Village. I get her on the phone during lunch service but she claims to be too busy to talk, “I’ll call you later,” she says, but she doesn’t.
On an evening before the official opening these men were holding court as the couple behind consulted phones.
I was thrilled to see puntarella, Roman chicory, on the menu with anchovies, garlic and stracciatelle cheese.
I check the internet. “Avena is moving! To E 66th Street near the park,” I read on the website. “Meanwhile, visit us in Greenwich Village.” Driving up Sixth Avenue after downtown dinners, I try to spot the old Da Silvano. Finally I think I’ve seen it behind a formidable street barricade. I meet a downtown friend for dinner there. The elegant bread basket is familiar, but there is no amuse. And no sign of Giselle. The place is just about empty except for a table where a local character holds forth in a very loud voice. “De Niro will play him in the movie,” my friend said.
“It’s officially open now, and the food is great,” one of my most reliable restaurant spotters reports two days later. Aren’t I the critic who discovered the original Avena? I’ll try again. My niece and I get out of the taxi on Bleecker Street and walk south, following alongside some hulking highway construction. It had arrived without warning two weeks after the Deiacos moved in.
At 268 Sixth the restaurant overflows onto the sidewalk with exuberant celebrants. Avena? No. It’s Bar Pitti. Next door at 260, a few sidewalk tables stand ready to be discovered. And inside, Avena is still lovelorn, too.
I’ve labeled this tagliata manzo but it isn’t sliced so maybe I was dreaming.
We order the burrata Pugliese with organic red and yellow tomatoes every time we come to Avena.
The back room beckons. It feels logical to get away from the bar, even though it’s deserted. I suggest shared starters for the table. We'll have fresh pugliese burrata with organic red and yellow pachino tomatoes, black olive olivada and basil-infused olive oil.
“I’ll eat whatever you order,” says Dana.
Langoustines were the special one evening and four of us shared them.
That will include crisp fried fritto misto of calamaretti, shrimp and crab croquettes with a mild pink sauce, baby artichoke insalata with avocado and valerian greens, and Red Angus carpaccio with Pioppino mushrooms and shards of Parmesan. Back again a few evenings later, I’ll try the zucchini and zucchini flower flan over parmigiana fonduta with fresh Perigord truffles.
Eggplant is layered with scarmorza cheese and garnished with Pachino tomato confit.
There are two very different menus: the complex listings for the Osteria (a seperate entrance one store down that needed repairs) and a more modest selection for these rooms. But you can order from either menu, so we may as well sit where we please.
Lobster risotto is the pasta special one evening. A rich blanket covering the plate.
In my crowd, we’re always ready to share pastas. Herbed maltagliata noodles with Red Angus Bolognese. Risotto with lobster in a light tomato sauce. Half moon pasta packages filled with duck confit and foie gras in a sage butter goo. Lasagna with spring vegetables. Gnocchi Viola with crisp speck and arugula in gorgonzola fondue.
If you’ve just returned looking trim from the fat farm, you may be tempted to order salmon.
There will usually be someone who must have salmon – here the chef does it with spring onion green sauce on a potato galette. Not my idea of exciting. After so many swirls and spoons of pasta, one entrée will be enough for three or four – veal cheeks are a favorite, as well as duck two ways, and tonight, the evening special, crispy chunks of whole roasted suckling pig with baked apple and broccolini.
Plump sea scallops are seared and anchored on potato puree or milles feuilles.
Crisp cuts of suckling pig are an entrée special. We will definitely have them.
Uptown there was always breaded veal scallopini, not on the menu, but if you knew to ask. Tonight we ask twice and can’t believe Giselle when she insists the kitchen has none left at this early hour.
Dessert might be a duo of cannoli or this tiramisu with whipped cream.
After many shared choices and one too many pasta plates, we rarely order dessert. But it comes anyway and we taste: a duo of cannoli and tiramisu.
If Martians suddenly land, we can hide behind this metal barn door.
There are a few patio eaters the last time we come, and some noisy tables occupy in both rooms. We sit up front next to the sliding metal door. That is the evening the rookie waiter drops a pizza on Dana’s lap. A typical victim might have snapped. But Dana keeps her cool. “Please bring me some club soda and a cloth,’’ she says, then dabs at the spots until they disappear.
The blood orange semifreddo with blood orange compote is lathered with warm Italian meringue.
Giselle must have heard something. “The waiter dropped a pizza on her lap,” I report. “We’ll send you the cleaning bill. Do you realize we’ve been waiting more than half an hour for our entrees?” She buckles as if struck, and flees.
Fresh sliced strawberries flank the glazed mille foglia.
At the end my friends and I prepare to split the bill, as we always do, but no bill comes. I ask one of our companions to insist she ring up our payment. “She isn’t taking our credit cards,” he says. We leave a cash tip of $80, and kiss our pals goodnight on the tight little sidewalk.
I might not go back to Avena Village for a while – new openings around town demand attention -- but I’ll be waiting for Avena Midtown, hoping the Deiacos escape their evil troll on the next move.
260 Sixth Avenue between Bleecker and West Houston streets. 212 505 9252. Monday through Sunday, lunch, dinner, late supper 11:30 am to 2 am. Weekend brunch 11:30 am to 4 pm.
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