Homemade, buttery bruschetta crisps start off every meal at Ornella Trattoria
Ornella Trattoria (29-17 23rd Ave., Astoria)
If you hop on the morning N or Q at the Ditmars stop in Astoria, do not be surprised if you pass Giuseppe Viterale on your way into work. You might spot him at a green market carefully inspecting a handful of pistachios, contemplating his own take on a traditional Sicilian recipe for pistachio cream sauce. Or maybe he is at the seafood counter hand selecting which shellfish to stew in today's special zuppa di pesce. But odds are you will most certainly see him somewhere in the proximity of his trattoria, sniffing out fresh ingredients from local markets that trigger a memory from his home in Salerno, Italy. If you know Giuseppe, you know that he almost daily experiments with unique ingredients, continually developing new recipes and perfecting old ones. If you're fortunate enough, he might even let you sample some of his works-in-progress.
Zuppa di pesce is loaded with shellfish stewing in a robust, garlic tomato broth
"This lemon ricotta cake is at 95%," he might warn you, through his hypnotizing Italian accent as thick and smooth as the frosting. "Give me two more days, and I make it 110%... fugheddaboudit!" he smiles, and you can see this man absolutely loves what he does. Although "fugheddaboudit" is one of his signature phrases, you can never leave his table and really forget about it (the lemon cake, by the way, is the best I have ever tasted... so I can't fathom what that extra 5% could possibly add). The food is phenomenal... deliciously addictive. And as the restaurant approaches its one year anniversary, the following of loyal patrons that have accrued will tell you that Giuseppe and his stunning and effervescent wife, Ornella, are just much a part of why they return regularly as the excellent authentic cuisine.
Since the doors first opened almost one year ago, the Viterales have been known for offering several deals and special offers in an attempt to draw in new guests and reward loyal patrons. But the newest series of special evenings by far surpasses any previous gesture, in my opinion, making these some of the hottest deals in Astoria... and definitely worth checking out.
Delicious al dente risotto with sauteed clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, & lump crabmeat
Thursday evenings, you can now enjoy any pasta or risotto on the menu for just $10, which, if you choose carefully, can be almost 40% savings.
Be sure to ask if they are offering any specials not listed on the menu. Last week when I stopped by, Giuseppe had created this nutty dish of chestnut pasta with pistachio cream sauce. The earthy and hearty pasta with the somehow sweet and savory pistachio sauce sent my taste buds soaring. It embodied what I love most about the dishes at Ornella, weaving familiar flavors into unique and exquisite combinations.
Though Thursday nights are now a neighborhood hit with the $10 pasta deals, I think the most exciting offering is Foodie Night on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. $35 buys you a four-course meal featuring some of the most exciting new dishes at Ornella Trattoria, along with accompanying wine (tax and gratuity additional). You begin with Giuseppe's signature duck meatballs (pictured above) which are stuffed with a blend of soft Italian cheeses, then glazed with a tangy and sweet orange brandy reduction. Think Italian duck a l'orange. These meatballs sent my head spinning, extremely tender, smoky, and loaded with mascarpone, ricotta, and fresh mozzarella. Never before have I heard of cheese-stuffed meatballs, and probably never again will I ever find a meatball quite this fantastic.
The intermezzo is Ornella's signature chestnut pasta, thin ribbons made from chestnut flour, tossed in roasted crushed garlic cloves and olive oil, with blanched arugula, cherry tomatoes, and plump shrimp. This unique dish was one of the first that hooked me into that initial return visit, and remains one of my favorite standards to enjoy and share with friends.
The main course offers each diner a choice of one of the following three entrees:
Pork chop stuffed with prosciutto and fontina cheese, mouthwateringly served atop a bed of wild mushrooms and madeira wine sauce.
Juicy, tender pistachio-crusted chicken filets, sauteed in an anisette and dried apricot sauce (sauce not pictured).
Or my personal favorite, red wine-braised short ribs on a heap of hand-cut gnocchi. The short ribs are flawlessly tender, and the gnocchi the most delicate, light, pillows of pasta I have ever enjoyed. This is the ultimate autumn feast, and one of my all-time favorites from Ornella.
For a sweet finale, choose from ricotta cheesecake, lemon cake, tiramisu (unanimously voted the best tiramisu around by every guest I have taken to the trattoria), chocolate mousse, or if you are brave and want to be completely wowed by a unique Ornella original, try the chocolate eggplant cake. Almost like a decadent, mocha, zucchini dessert bread, the sugars of the eggplant caramelize and harmonize wonderfully with the chocolate.
Also be sure to check out Ornella Trattoria on the weekends, where Ornella herself hosts brunch. $13 is the extremely reasonable price tag for your choice of entree, served with coffee, country potatoes, and unlimited mimosas or bellinis. I highly recommend the eggs benedict or the baked pancakes with nutella and fresh fruit. Be sure to give Ornella a hug from me. After having spent several hours with her entire family since my initial visit to their restaurant, I can honestly say she is one of the most remarkable women I have met in New York. And if you are lucky enough, you might even catch a glimpse of the Viterale clan of boys, hilarious and wonderful young men who love to help run the family business on the weekends.