Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fiorini: Italian for New Yorkers

(An exquisite Risotto ai Frutti di Mare, luxuriously jeweled with lobster, diver scallops, ocean prawns, calamari, & jumbo lump crabmeat)

Fiorini [209 E. 56th St., b/w 2nd & 3rd Ave; (212) 308-0830]

"I don't worry about the creativity--I worry about the execution," explains famed New York City restaurateur, Lello Arpaia.  The creative force behind such institutions as Lello, Scarlatti, Cellini, & Bellini (and father of the beautiful Donatella Arpaia most visibly recognized of Food Network fame), at Fiorini Mr. Arpaia has collaborated with Executive Chef Xavier Quispilema on a standout menu of Italian (and Italian-American) classics.  "I took some of Italy's best and most notorious dishes, accommodating the taste slightly for New Yorkers."  Though extremely proud of his Italian heritage, and unafraid to showcase authentic Italian, Arpaia believes that successful restaurants must "understand the evolution of Italian cuisine in New York City."  A firm believer that too often the human factor is being removed from the equation of a culinary genre intended to bring people together around a table to talk and interact, he gently smiles as if recalling past favorite family gatherings...  "My food is not necessarily sophisticated, but it has a soul and an identity."  And it most certainly does.  Clean and often seemingly simple dishes are executed to excitingly flavorful effect, as I recently discovered at an invited tasting with the owner, Lello Arpaia, himself.

Impossibly delicate ribbons of tender prosciutto di parma recline as a cushion for creamy imported burrata, roasted peppers, asparagus spears, and a bold drizzle of tangy balsamic--a simple, classic antipasto to awaken the palate.

Grilled mediterranean octopus is rendered exceptionally tender, the crisp charred coating giving way to a sweetness and tenderness almost resembling more of a succulent prawn.  Plump capers and olives explode like berries of ocean water,  blended with a slight bitterness of arugula, and sweet onions and tomatoes.  Another simple, fresh, beautifully executed starter.

For the pasta course, al dente ribbons of homemade pappardelle are deliciously woven with a confetti of jumbo lump crabmeat medallions, sweet cherry tomatoes, and a basil-kissed lobster broth.  For risotto lovers, the super fine arborio rice glistening with a whole array of jewels of the sea (pictured at the heading) is one of the most straightforward, yet intricately decadent risottos I have enjoyed in awhile.

Whole branzino is presented table side, and then filleted into individual portions served to each guest.  Because fish from the Mediterranean harbors its own natural saltiness, "we add our own blend of spices and salt to enhance the natural flavor," smiles Arpaia.

Diver sea scallops are gently dusted with fresh mozzarella, which blends with the lemon zest and white wine to create a sort of mornay sauce drizzling the buttery morsels of the sea.  Seemingly out of left field, a single kumquat adds a surprisingly welcome tart candy essence to cut the richness, leaving the table wishing for a second helping.

Smoky and spicy star anise draws out the richness of the Petto D'Anatra, pan seared duck breast over poached Bartlett pears that whisper of sweetness in a shallow pool of dry vermouth reduction.  Tender and refined, this elegant (if not unexpected on an Italian menu) plate imprints itself as a memorable standout.

Following the resonant theme of refined simplicity (and yet again, French in origin) comes a truly grand finale--baba au rhum.  A cloud of sponge cake is stuffed with a light mascarpone custard, crowned with a single dried cherry, and soaked in a sweet marsala wine sauce, served with a side car of rum to drizzle over the puff just before consuming.  It tastes simultaneously medieval and magnificent, the warmth of the rum slowly traveling to the extremities.

But what more quintessential ending than a rich, molten-centered tortino di cioccolato, a surprisingly light and velvety soufflé--a classic end to a wonderful, Italian dinner.

The 120 seat mahogany and alabaster dining room is ideal for a moderately priced midtown lunch or post-museum/pre-show dinner.  An array of cocktails round out the carefully edited wine selection (consider the Melograno, with Citron, reduced blackberry puree with triple sec and fresh mint).

Fiorini on Urbanspoon

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