(A decadently buttery potato pancetta gratin accompanies Mamma's meatloaf at Max)
Max Restaurant (51 Avenue B, East Village)
There is nothing quite like a dream so vivid and lush you can almost taste it. At Max Restaurant, the delightfully cozy, wallet-thrifty (the average entree is $10-$15), drool-inducing homestyle Italian restaurant inconspicuously tucked into Alphabet City just a few blocks from Tompkins Square Park, you quite literally can...
From your first step in the door, you feel instantly at home... exposed brick walls, chianti-colored ceilings, textured cream-colored antique wallpaper that almost begs to be touched, paper napkins waiting to be dabbed with excess sauce, framed black-and-whites from Naples and Rome, and vintage chalkboards scribbled with the daily specials. It's inviting, intimate, and promises to be every bit as scrumptious as it looks.
It is all primarily the reverie of chef-owner Luigi Iasilli, who as a young boy in Italy dreamt for years of moving to America. When at age 29 he finally transplanted to New York City, and a few years later opened Max in Manhattan's lower east side, he thought it only fitting to name the restaurant after the Italian magazine through which he had attained many of his initial impressions of life in America. "It seemed like ninety percent of the stories [in Max] were about America," Luigi reflects with a nostalgic smile, "and then probably ninety percent of those were about New York City." And so a dream was born.
In a commitment to uphold the quality of culinary tradition in which he was raised, Luigi has several ingredients imported directly from Italy. To prove it, he pops open an enormous can of plump ruby tomatoes at the table, inviting us to take our forks to the star at the foundation of most of his sauces, which are completely organic and are sourced from Tuscany. They are astoundingly sweet and delicious, and it's merely a tantalizing foreplay.
A surprisingly light, creamy, fresh mozzarella is imported, as well, from the water buffalo of southern Salerno. With a sprig of basil and a fragrant drizzle of glistening extra virgin olive oil made exclusively for the restaurant, it's the perfect introduction to the meal.
Complimentary bread service is accompanied by a bowl of a rather unique house salsetta, a dipping sauce of tomato and olive oil laced with specks of oregano and tiny bits of lemon and orange zest. The bread is sourced from Il Forno bakery in the Bronx, and almost everything that doesn't come direct from Italy is sourced locally.
Melanzane a funghetto is thusly named because the diced cubes of fried eggplant have been rendered so tender and meaty, they could quite easily be mistaken for sauteed mushrooms. No frills or gimmicks, just quality ingredients, and we realize we are in for quite a treat.
Crostino toscano is next, a toasted bread point with warm chicken liver pate slathered atop. The surprisingly creamy and rich spread is cut ever so slightly with a hint of anchovy, adding a welcome saltiness.
Though the pasta dough is also sourced locally due to a lack of preparation space (with the exception of the gnocchi, which are made in-house), the pastas are all shaped and filled at Max. And nothing can quite get my mouth watering like the heavenly scent of truffle oil in the air as we are presented with the ravioli di porcini in crema tartufata, just one of the daily ravioli specials. Shimmery half-moon pockets are stuffed to bursting with finely chopped woodland mushrooms, all blanketed in a refreshingly light truffle-kissed cream sauce, the mushroom bits so tiny that the earthy, decadent pasta pillows remain the star.
Lasagna fatta in casa is generously stacked with ribbons of perfectly al dente pasta, concealing meat so tender it blends harmoniously with the creamy cheeses and bechamel, all jazzed up by a few surprise spices and herbs (I swore not to reveal the secret ingredient, but think grated holiday spices that add a wonderfully subtle zip). The sweet and tangy tomato sauce on top beautifully cuts the richness, all dusted with a salty little flurry of parmesan flakes.
In Max's version of an Italian-American seafood classic, spaghetti del marinaio, the tomato sauce is zipped up several notches with zesty peppers to resemble a fra diavolo sauce. Tender noodles colored black with squid ink offer a briny richness that enhances the heat, offset by a generous toss-in of sweet, plump, juicy shrimp.
Perhaps my favorite showcase for the vibrant tomato sauce was the fettuccine al sugo toscano, where just a hint of cream has been added to create an extremely hearty bolognese sauce that warms you to your extremities, an ideal dish for the bitter New York winter weather. This is classic, old school Italian-American at its very best, and at $10.95 it would be difficult to find a tastier fork-twirl of pasta anywhere else.
The spaghetti alla chitarra al ragu d'agnello is a simple and savory red sauce loaded with lean crumbles of tender lamb, which adds a contrasting richness to the acidity of the tomatoes. Again, very simple, basic, quality ingredients without any masking shine beautifully to create an extremely satisfying bowl of pasta.
The gnocchi alla sorrentina, however, may be the reason I return. Many an Italian restaurant boasts gnocchi dishes, though they quite often severely miss the mark. At Max, these incredible pasta clouds are made in house, and boiled to perfection, quite literally dissolving in your mouth. As you stab clusters of these little guys, melted fresh mozzarella strings from your fork, with basil-speckled streams of tomato sauce swirling in the cheese like an edible Van Gogh painting.
For those seeking something lighter, I would highly recommend the filetto di baccala al forno. Extremely tender pan-seared cod falls into flaky pieces with the prodding of a fork, a crispy golden coating giving way to a buttery, moist, shimmery filet of fish. A generous dollop of whipped potatoes laced with truffle oil are the perfect compliment. While it would be a crime to dine at Max without sampling at least one variation of the tomato sauce, this would be a justifiable reason to stray.
Someone at your table absolutely has to order Mamma's Meatloaf. Upon cutting open the enormous polpettone the size of a nerf football, melted cheese slowly flows from within, where thin slivers of ham penetrate the entire loaf with a savory hint that elevates this dish to addictive wonder. Like a meatball cordon bleu in a red velvet cloak of tomato sauce, the dish is served with a heaping stack of the potato pancetta gratin (pictured at the heading), which I could ravenously devour plates of all by itself. The egg-bound delicate meats with melted ribbons of cheese paired with an incomparable potato gratin is actually one of my favorite comfort dishes I have tried in all of New York City.
Mysteriously, a French favorite, creme brulee, makes a cameo on the dessert menu, though it is extremely welcomed. Perfectly executed in its classic form, a window of caramel-crystallized sugar shatters to reveal a creamy, sweet vanilla custard.
Served in a glass chalice, the tiramisu is surprisingly light, the ladyfinger sponge cake pieces still fluffy. So many versions are drowned and soggy, but this dessert at Max is a refreshingly airy take on an Italian-American favorite.
A towering panna cotta arrives, almost the size of an upturned pint glass. Yet again, Max offers a unique spin on this sweet finale, with a panna cotta significantly denser than most. But after such a phenomenal homestyle Italian dinner, who wants a wimpy and flimsy mound of gelatinous cream? This thick, decadent version, garnished with sliced strawberries and swimming in a moat of golden sauce, is more like a creme caramel, and downright fantastic.
This casual little gem is cash only, and open daily from 5PM to 11:30PM (midnight on Friday and Saturday). From what I have witnessed and heard, it is quite often rather packed, as the three dining rooms can only accommodate forty to sixty patrons depending on whether the closed in patio is in service, so reservations are certainly recommended. During the summer, an outdoor garden dressed like an Italian piazza adds seating for up to 50 more guests. A full service bar in the middle dining room offers a well-edited selection of small estate Italian wines, as well as Peroni and Moretti, though I highly recommend a glass of aglianico to compliment the tomato sauce, and a glass of moscato d'asti with dessert.
A second location in Tribeca also serves lunch.