Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sublimely Delicious Winter Dishes at Ornella Trattoria

The bolognese sauce takes over 2 hours to prepare, served on homemade fusilli

Ornella Trattoria Italiana (29-17 23rd Ave; 1/2 block from Ditmars N/Q station)

"Now-ah dis is-ah dah REAL fyoo-see-lee... not like-ah dat spiral stuff... dis is much bedd-uh.  Fuhgeddaboudit..." smiles Giuseppe, as he proudly places the masterpiece on the white linen before me.  His Italian accent is as thick and comforting as the bolognese sauce blanketing the long coils of fresh pasta. Half the joy of dining at Ornella, after all, is having Giuseppe serve you.

As I devour the savory meat sauce and thin, hollow al dente noodles, he points out one of the greatest joys of eating homemade pasta.  Since he never uses a machine, each noodle is slightly different in thickness, shape, and texture, making each bite uniquely enjoyable.  The fusilli bolognese is a dish from his hometown that his mother-in-law has made by hand probably thousands of times over the course of her life.

Each and every dish comes with a family story, and there are well over 100 different dishes available in the restaurant any given day of the week, though only a select few are listed on the menu.  This is the man who was famous for his contraband supply of casu marzu as well as his seasonal offering of the legendary sanguinaccio--a chocolate pudding made with fresh pig's blood, which Giuseppe also uses as a cannoli filling (he's already made a batch this winter).

But despite the Fear-Factor-ish culinary delicacies he loves to share with friends and regulars, Giuseppe's menu is undeniably the most diverse Italian menu anywhere around, and arguably the most authentic.  Will he make you chicken parmigiana?  Sure.  But only because he likes to please each customer; not because it's a favorite authentic dish.

Pizzoccheri alla Fontina

If you truly want to enjoy what makes this restaurant so incredibly special, simply ask Giuseppe about the dishes inspired by his home in Salerno, Italy.  From his father, who ran a flour mill, Giuseppe learned the nuances of making different flours.  One of the most exquisite dishes he serves is the pizzoccheri alla fontina, featuring long flat noodles made from buckwheat flour.  The hearty pasta ribbons are tossed with tender braised cabbage, golden potatoes, fontina cheese, and a touch of garlic and olive oil.  The dish is simultaneously light, hearty, decadent, and a playscape of textures and flavors atypical of Italian American standards.

Risotto al Nero di Seppia

Another delicious winter special that Giuseppe has recently introduced is this cuttlefish risotto.  The black color comes from a mere spoonful of cuttlefish ink, which is the original ink used for sepia prints (though now other inks are typically substituted for the sepia effect).  In spite of its uninviting color, the risotto is wonderfully al dente, and sings exquisitely of seafood with a kiss of parmesan.  Hidden within the fragrant rice are actual medallions of cuttlefish, which look and taste like a more tender version of steamed calamari.  Though the peas are primarily a contrasting garnish, along with the endive they add a crunch and crispness to the luxuriously velvety dish. This is edible proof that you cannot judge a book by its cover.

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