Before Audrey Hepburn discovered Gregory Peck, I had my own delicious and romantic "Roman Holiday." The Principessa taught me how to make a risotto with lamb bones and green walnuts. The newspaper man was ever-so-slightly married and taught me what I'd been missing in bed one afternoon on the Principessa's Empire sofa. That brought as many thrills as 1000 risottos. And then I discovered bucatini al'amatriciana.
All that came back in a series of flashes when I read Ligaya Mishan's evocative report on Gastronomia Culinaria in the still-foldable, clip-outable NYTimes. Upper Central Park West. That's my neighborhood, I thought, though I can't say I'd ever heard of Manhattan Avenue on my UWS. I overlooked that Mishan had found the place uneven. It was so bucolic up there one evening last week, the cabbie graciously swung a "U" on West 106th to drop us on the north side of the street.
The narrow storefront was dark and homey, leading up a ramp to bare wooden tables and a lively ménage at the bar. I took the empty table farthest away from the blast of winter. We got water and menus with repeated demands in broken Italian, but not much attention. Then, finally, a glass of wine. I asked if we could have our pizza while we studied the menu options - clearly the designated servers were spread thin.
There are so many $6 offerings. I am already charmed. "Let's try everything," I suggest. Though there is still no sign of the pizza, suddenly chunks of pizza bread arrive with fig jam and a quartet of antipasti ($6 to $10). Remarkably ungreasy arancini al limone in a flurry of grated cheese to dip into aioli is a promising start. And there is just enough frisée-crowned eggplant parmigiana for three to share.
I'm philosophically opposed to kale in any form (although I certainly fell for it as cavolo nero in Tuscany). Instead, we agree on the insalata di panzanella, but alas, ungainly cucumber chunks and the tough spinsters of summer's heirloom tomatoes can't save a bread salad. And I want my burrata oozing a puddle of buttery cream.
I imagine the crowd here must be local. How grateful they must be for chef-owner Vincenzo Pezzilli's Roman home cooking and classes out back. And the bare brick, the shelves, the inoffensive oil paintings. "There can't be that many places to eat this far West uptown," I observe to my pals. "It's perfect for the neighborhood. But a trek for us."
In the pause that follows the clearing, pastas and the roast pork arrive. I figure the pizza is moot. Our server goes off to check while I happily inhale the garlic wafting from my pasta in its deep stylish white dish. "Strascinati alla norcina in a simmered pork ragu with porcini." I take a bite of this pasta I don't recall tasting before. It looks like a blown up elbow of macaroni but it's solid. An involuntary gasp of delight floats on 106th Street. I drag another through the pork rubble.
For a moment the pizza distracts. It's huge, a serious pizza, flat and crisp in the Roman style: paved with mascarpone, tomato, speck and truffle. Fake truffle oil, I imagine. But I don't mindat all. This is a pizza I'd be back for too...and I have yet to pass along the strascinati to my share-mates. But I can't hold on indefinitely. I slide it to my left.
I don't say a word. The pappardelle with black olives and lamb ragu is serious too, firm and al dente. I watch my companion get his first taste of my pasta. He's sitting up straight now. His pork, roasted in the style of suckling pig - with a fat-lined crackle of fabulous crust -- is okay, even good. And I love the crushed potatoes underneath. But that chunky peasant noodle is a killer.
My friend's wife is too full now to taste my pasta as it rounds off to her. She gives it back to him. "I advise you to taste the pasta before you pass," I urge her. "And if not, I'll be coming back here after all and you can join me." The portion is not that mammoth ,but so rich, and there's still some left. I have it wrapped to go.
Our waitress, Emily Duarte, confides that it was she was made the pasta earlier today. She is the chef's student. She makes desserts too. But she is not apprenticing with the goal of cooking. "It's too much work," she says. She is studying Management at College. Now dessert seems essential. Chocolate tortino is my choice. ("Allow 20 minutes," the menu warns.)
I can't stifle my annoyance that no one suggested we might order it ahead."Emily, why didn't you warn us earlier about your tortino? You need to have pride in your desserts," I scold her.
"It's really just ten minutes," she responds.
Panna cotta with blueberry sauce is an instant standby. That's first-rate too, the custard properly delicate and wiggly, the syrup not too sweet. And the ladyfingers crossed alongside look homemade, a good sign should we surrender next time to a tiramisu.
53 West 106th Street between Columbus Avenue and Manhattan Avenue. 212 663 1040. Monday through Thursday 5 to 10 pm. Friday through Sunday 11:30 am to 11 pm.
Photographs of Gastronomia Culinaria's roasted pork shoulder with smashed potatoes, homey interior, bread salad, crispy arancini, the marvelous strascinati with pork and porcini ragu, pizza with speck, mascarpone and truffles, pappardelle, blueberry panna cotta, and Chef Vincenzo Pezzilli may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.