Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ornella: A one-of-a-kind invitation to dine with a true Italian family

Ornella Trattoria Italiana (29-17 23rd Ave., Astoria)

(The following review is currently featured on Why Leave Astoria?  Present a WLA card for 50% off all entrees Mon-Thu)

"To see something different, you have to go off the road," smiles Giusseppe Viterale, proprietor of Ornella Trattoria Italiana.  It's not only his philosophy on life, but his approach to selecting unique dishes for his menu that prominently stand out from anything you might taste elsewhere.

Giusseppe himself greets each customer as they enter his trattoria.  As he pulled out a chair for me, and poured a generous glass of pinot noir (they received their liquor license earlier this week), I had absolutely no idea that I was about to indulge in a culinary experience that would exponentially surpass even my most favorite Italian meals (it is with great awareness that I offer this endorsement, as I have enjoyed fine Italian food of more famous competitors from around the corner in Astoria, all over New York City, and around the world).

From your initial step through the entryway to Ornella, you are instantly transported to an authentic glimpse of Italy, the walls hand-painted to represent a typical street with signs of various piazzas named after each of the Viterale children.  The intimate 52-seat dining room feels simultaneously special and welcoming.  A shelf over the bar displays the books of an array of authors the Viterales have served over the years (Ornella is by no means their first venture).  

The windows are even painted to reflect a countryside village.  When his guests walk in, Giuseppe explains, he wants them to feel like they are in his family dining room, far away from the chaos outside.  His Italian accent is every bit as rich as you'd hope it to be, but because he speaks with such passion and enthusiasm, his communication flows with ease past any language barrier, like a soothing baritone aria.

Giusseppe and his wife, Ornella (the restaurant's namesake) have woven together a menu that combines favorite recipes from generations of family members and friends from all over Italy.  When asked what kind of Italian they serve, Giusseppe just laughs.  You cannot merely label food either Northern or Southern Italian based on the color of the sauces, he will tell you.  Italy is a complex blend of so many regions, each with its own specialty.  During frequent visits home, he ventures off the beaten path in search of new stories to tell through his recipes.  Virtually every dish has its own unique tale that he will be more than happy to share if you inquire.

What kind of review doesn't describe the bread offered at the table?  So often, I forego explaining this important component of the meal, as so many restaurants source their breads from local purveyors and bakeries.  Not Ornella Trattoria, however, which bakes all of its own breads... such as this fragrant, tangy amuse-bouche of bruschetta that was presented as soon as the water was poured.

The freshly baked peasant loaf was heavenly and warm; and while the focaccia would have been a delectable sponge for any leftover sauces later to come in the meal, barely a crumb was left before even the first course arrived.

Because Giussppe's father ran a flour mill in Rofrano (a city with a population of just over 2,000 in the Salerno province of Italy just south of the Amalfi Coast), he was raised with an early affinity for unique flours and the resulting textures and flavors they produce.  Thankfully, he exercises this expertise far beyond the bread basket, and allows it to beautifully infiltrate each of his unique homemade pasta dishes.  "The pasta may take a minute," he explains, much to my relief, while my stomach laughs with the bread and wine happily settling in.  "We make all of our pasta fresh to order, so the cooks are back there cutting it for you right now."

The first dish to arrive featured a pasta made from the flour of ground chestnuts.  The rich, buttery, nuttiness is harmonized gloriously with a kaleidoscope of gently blanched arugula, cherry tomatoes, generous pieces of sauteed shrimp, and a simple broth of oil and fresh garlic (to maximize flavor, his wife insists on the use of whole cloves simply crushed with the flat side of a knife just before adding to the sautée).  As I savor each bite with goosebumps running the length of my arm, he shares the story of this dish with roots in Castagna.  "See, you don't need a big sauce when you have flavors like this, no?"  He's absolutely correct.  Any cream or tomato sauce would only mask this exquisite bouquet.  I am instantly in heaven, and it's only the first course.

Upon complimenting the particularly delicious pieces of shrimp, Giusseppe asks if I am a fan of fish.  As soon as I affirm, he retrieves a small package of what he explains to be bottarga (tuna caviar that has been massaged by hand to remove any air pockets, then dried and cured in sea salt for a few weeks, and finally sealed in beeswax).

"Put a little bit of your pasta on this small plate," he cautions, "just in case you don't like it."  He returns from the kitchen with a cheese grater, and then shaves some of the bottarga onto my pasta.  The saltiness somehow explodes all of the flavors even more, and perfectly complements the shrimp, as he suggested.  "We don't offer this on the menu, but if you want it and we have it, just ask for some.  It's good even with just bread."  I am speechless.

Giusseppe credits his twin sister for the recipe to this next dish.  "I want you to try this, because I know it's something you would not order if you just read the ingredients on a menu in the window.  But will you please try it?"

I am slowly realizing that I have sat down to dinner with a genuine epicurean master, who exudes a contagious passion for Italian food, the confidence of a culinary Olympic gold-medalist, but not even the slightest hint of arrogance you might expect from someone of his stature and life experience.  In just a  few bites, he has completely earned my full trust, and I can't wait to dive into this family recipe.  I've never tasted anything like this before.

Giusseppe is again correct.  I most likely would not have chosen buckwheat pasta with cabbage and potatoes, for fear that it might taste like noodles and sauerkraut.  Would I have ever missed out!  These dark ribbons of pasta have a firm, yet yielding texture unlike any other pasta (nothing like their Japanese cousin, the soba noodle).  The potatoes bring out the earthiness of the buckwheat, yet absorb all of the flavors of the oil and garlic.  The cabbage is sliced so thin, and sauteed so delicately that you can barely tell the difference between it and the shreds of fontina cheese.  This has opened up a whole new world to me, and I can finally share with my mom that pasta and potatoes are not too much starch together, but actually couple perfectly.

Since I can't seem to stop interjecting about how delicious the bottarga was, Giusseppe suggests that I will really enjoy the herbs and natural salts of his next selection.  This pasta is made from the flour of crushed chickpeas, a specialty of a Tuscan village that showcases chickpeas in nearly all of its dishes.  With the freshly crushed garlic, artichoke hearts, capers, and olives, this Mediterranean dish almost reminds me of a creamy hummus in the form of a pasta.  By now I am literally laughing at the table, overtaken by glee and an utter disbelief that such simple ingredients can be interwoven in such a unique way, to create flavors and textures I've never tried, but am certain to now crave.

At this point, my kind, gentle, and brilliant host inquires if I want to try one of the entrees, or continue with the pastas that are driving me into bliss.  Reflecting on his explanation that each region in Italy takes one style and perfects it, rather than being mediocre at many different styles, he decides I should learn everything I can about the pasta this evening.  I know for certain that I will return, so there will be ample opportunity to try the other facets of the menu.

One of Ornella's most popular dishes is the imbustata, literally an "envelope" of pasta filled with roasted veal, chicken, wild mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, spinach, and mascarpone cheese, all blanketed with a light, yet flavorsome tomato sauce.  Though I wholeheartedly believe each diner should experiment with some of Ornella's unique pastas, the imbustata was undeniably my favorite stuffed pasta ever to cross my lips.  A genius, hearty blend of robust flavors I will certainly order again.

As it was now apparent that I could fit little else into my mouth, Giusseppe insisted that I try just a few more things.  Though I was nearly stuffed beyond maximum capacity, how on earth could I resist an invitation to try a few more plates of what had proven to be the most delicious pasta outside of Italy itself?

If you even remotely hope to enjoy gnocchi elsewhere, then I recommend avoiding Ornella's version.  The split-second your fork pierces this lighter-than-air pasta cloud, you will know that all other versions are nothing more than weak imitations of this Italian classic.  Ornella's fluffy pasta pillows come tossed in a decadently rich gorgonzola cream sauce that works perfectly with the feathery density of the gnocchi.

After two hours of indulgent, delicious divinity, our server brought out a tasting of some of Ornella's specialty desserts.  "Bradley, you must at least take a bite of each."  Half willing, and halfway already succumbing to food-induced sleepiness, I could not help but smile at this beautiful ending to a magical evening.

Giusseppe imparted one last piece of wisdom.  If anything is plated too perfectly or cut too cleanly, you should question the cook's focus on quality flavors.  "If I want you to taste tomato and asparagus together, I don't make statues of them on opposite ends of the plate connected with a balsamic drizzle," he explains.  He doesn't believe you have to be insulted into seeing the components and building them yourself.  "I believe in amalgamating the flavors in the kitchen, and getting them to the guest as quickly as possible."

Take for instance his desserts: an espresso-soaked tiramisu, moist lemon cake with actual slivers of candied lemon in the frosting, an incredibly smooth and creamy secret-recipe ricotta and mascarpone cheesecake (my favorite, and a must-try, no matter how full you think you are), and a rich chocolate glazed layer mousse torte.  "Look at the pieces, Bradley...  they aren't pretty, but wait until you taste them.  You'll be glad we didn't waste time plating them or slicing them perfectly in advamce... it would only compromise their flavor and moisture."  As I have come to believe he always is, Giusseppe was again correct.  While there were no edible flowers or perfect swirls of coulis on my plate, the flavors were absolute perfection.

If you have ever claimed to love Italian food, then you would be negligent not to add Ornella Trattoria to your bucket list of must-try restaurants.  Though it's somewhat off the beaten path (though not far from the Astoria Blvd. or Ditmars stops on the N or W line), simply remember Giusseppe's philosophy.  If you don't stray from the usual path, how will you ever discover something new?  As Robert Frost so wisely wrote, the road less traveled can make all the difference.

Only open for a few months so far, I am certain this place is going to explode once word gets out.  They do offer free delivery, though the experience of dining there would be a shame to miss.  Starters range from $7 - $10, pastas from $14 - $19, and meat/chicken/seafood entrées from $18 - $25.  They also offer an $11.95 lunch special including antipasto, entrée, and soft drink. WLA cardholders receive a 50% discount on all entrees Mon - Thu!

Ornella Trattoria Italiana on Urbanspoon

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