At ’Cesca, Tom Valenti rediscovers his roots.
“It stunk up the whole house,” recalls Tom Valenti of his grandma Settimia’s tripe with tomatoes. His voice isn’t exactly quivering with Proustian emotion, but he’s only warming up. “A big pot of simmered love” is how the Ouest chef remembers the Valenti family’s Sunday sauce. And Dad’s stromboli? “Couldn’t get enough of it. I love that stuff.” With childhood memories like those, it’s no wonder Valenti feels compelled to open ’Cesca, named for partner Godfrey Polistina’s daughter, Francesca. And besides, “it was a natural next step, because that’s what Godfrey and I opt to eat way more times than not,” he says. The fact that the Upper West Side isn’t quite teeming with good Italian restaurants didn’t escape them, either. But just in case a Pepe Le Pew cloud from a pot of tripe stew doesn’t elicit the same Pavlovian response from squeamish locals, Valenti and chef de cuisine Amanda Freitag (late of Lavagna and Il Buco) are hedging their bets with an alluringly accessible menu that covers all the au courant southern-Italian bases, with an emphasis on the sort of hearty, full-flavored food that distinguishes Valenti’s oeuvre: arancini, bucatini con le sarde, and baked maccheroni with meat ragu and Parmesan “puddin’. ” And the chef clearly hasn’t forsaken his sophisticated-comfort-food roots either: Signature lamb shanks show up on Saturdays, and Mondays belong to a variation on the chef’s crowd-pleasing meat loaf. Rob Patronite
Details: ’Cesca, mid-September (164 West 75th Street; 212-787-6300).
With a new Upper East Side barbecue joint, it’s the pits again for British hairdresser turned brisket boss Robert Pearson.
Before Robert Pearson opened Stick to Your Ribs on a Long Island City side street in 1992, New York was a town bereft of great barbecue. That it took an Englishman to teach us what real ’cue was all about is remarkable, if not a bit embarrassing—like a Brooklynite introducing Londoners to the pleasures of the Scotch egg. But who’s complaining? With a new partner (Ken Aretsky), a new location (the former Butterfield 81 space), and a new $20,000, 3,000-pound pit, Pearson—who retired after his Upper West Side satellite branch burned down—is back in the barbecue business.
What are some common barbecue misconceptions?
A lot of places call themselves barbecue joints, and the food they serve is fine, and I wouldn’t knock it for a minute, but it’s not barbecue. Good barbecue doesn’t allow the fat to drip into the fire. Good barbecue is cooked slowly for many hours, and the heat source has to be wood contained in a pit; that heat—if you have perfect combustion—is the source of the flavor, not the smoke. I don’t want smoke in the cooking process.
You once said that all the best barbecue joints are on the wrong side of the tracks. Does East 81st Street qualify?
When I looked at the space, I knew it had all the makings of a barbecue place: It’s funky with old banquettes, and the bar has been painted with about ten thousand coats of paint. The only thing that really had to change was the kitchen floor, because I like to hose down the place at the end of the day.
You’ll be doing beef brisket, chicken, chopped pork, ribs, and hot links. Anything else you’re thinking of tossing into the pit?
Wild boar, that’s always nice when it’s in season. I used to do rattlesnake and alligator tail—big chunks of alligator meat—and I’ll do those again. Fresh ham is nice; whole salmon comes out almost poached-like, and I like the idea of getting a pair of legs—the hind quarters of a sheep that you used to see in butcher shops. If you barbecue them just the way they are and leave all the fat on and take it out 24 hours later . . . uhhhh!, To die over. Rob Patronite
Details: Pearson’s Texas Barbecue, September (170 East 81st Street; 212-288-2700).
Alain Ducasse goes Franco-American.
It took Alain Ducasse months to recover from the cold reception New York gave his eponymous restaurant at the Essex House, where unimpressed New Yorkers eschewed the pomp, the circumstance, and especially the $160 prix fixe price tag. He’s not taking any chances at Mix, a more modest, less formal—and, probably thanks to partner Jeffrey Chodorow of China Grill and Asia de Cuba, patently style-conscious—enterprise just down the street, which the mega-starred chef has been diplomatically calling “a culinary bridge between the French and American continents.” You can’t be too careful in this freedom-fry era, we suppose, but Ducasse is no Jeanny-come-lately to American food. An unabashed devotee of locally grown ingredients, he’s even written a book on the subject (Harvesting Excellence), which helps explain the Mix menu’s down-home-ish emphasis on dishes like New England clam chowder, bison rib eye, and “farm pork casserole with barbecue sauce, bitter greens and corn bread.” As Ducasse has an empire to run, he’s delegated the cooking duties to Douglas Psaltis, a veteran of his kitchens, and entrusted the design to Patrick Jouin, a frequent collaborator and Philippe Starck protegé. Macaroni and cheese and a bar crowd are two things we never expected from Alain Ducasse, but so be it. If he can’t beat ’em, the perfectionist chef will do his meticulous utmost to join ’em. Robin Raisfeld
Details: Mix, September 8 (68 West 58th Street; 212-583-0300).
The Best of the
Rest of September
Call Bao Noodles (391 Second Avenue) a baby Bao: The boys from Avenue C’s Bao 111 go rustic with a menu featuring Vietnamese noodle soups. . . .
Christopher Chesnutt of Tribeca’s El Teddy’s ventures into the Village, where he and his wife, Ewa Olsen, open Twilight 101 (64 West 10th Street; 212-505-7777), devoted to Mediterranean small plates (but don’t call them tapas) and wines from the same region. . . .
Matsuri, the high-style Japanese restaurant at the Maritime Hotel (363 West 16th Street; 212-243-6400), marks the return of Tadashi Ono and the elegant Asian cooking that earned him a following at Sono. . . .
Josh DeChellis understudied Rocco DiSpirito at Union Pacific; at intimate Sumile (154 West 13th Street; 212-989-7699), he delves deeper into Japanese-French territory with dishes like poached hamachi with pickled melon. . . .
It’s two trendy treats in one at Lucy (35 East 18th Street), where Patria chef Andrew DiCataldo takes on the cuisines we’re betting will be particularly big this year: Mexican and barbecue. . . .
Good-bye, line-dancing; hello, mambo: Alex Garcia (Calle Ocho) turns the Denim and Diamonds space into a restaurant and nightclub called LQ (511 Lexington Avenue), short for Latin Quarter. . . .
Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar (246 East 5th Street; 212-673-0338) promises to be yet another little gem from Jewel Bako’s Jack and Grace Lamb: The raw bar’s on the ground floor of the couple’s East Village carriage house, and chef Allison Vines worked at Ducasse and Brennan’s in New Orleans, which explains the pig cheeks with langoustines en cocotte and bananas Foster for dessert. . . .
Sui (54 Spring Street) brings unagi crêpes, buffalo carpaccio, and scallion-pancake pizza to an aquatic Nolita nook furnished with fish tanks and a waterfall. . . .
After the aforementioned Alex Garcia settles into LQ, he opens Zona Rosa (40 West 56th Street), with a taqueria takeout window, tequila and seviche bars, plus a few of those dreaded communal tables. . . .
We’ll take a square foot with anchovies: At Pinch—Pizza By The Inch (416 Park Avenue South), they measure the pie the way a tailor measures a pair of pants and charge you by the inch.