Shea Gallante’s polished new Italian restaurant, Ciano, which has been doing a brisk business since it opened in November in the Flatiron district, feels at first like a very familiar kind of place. The taverna-style space on East 22nd Street (last occupied by the Tuscan restaurant Beppe) exudes the kind of well-worn, homey charm that’s made Italian food the default fine-dining choice of our comfort-obsessed era. The tables are covered in white linen, and the walls and banquettes are colored in hues of brick orange and brown. The wait staff wear gently rumpled jackets and ties, and several of them speak with accents that may or may not be from Milan or Rome. There are veal meatballs on the menu, and bowls of rustic-sounding Tuscan bean ragù. The bread is baked in-house and warmed in a roaring fireplace, and on winter evenings, the snug, toasty dining room fills with the pleasant aroma of wood smoke, as if on cue.
But Gallante, who made his reputation running kitchens for David Bouley and was the chef at the star-crossed but well-reviewed boom-era, wine-focused restaurant Cru, has his own highly particular vision of rustic-style, farm-to-table Italian cooking in mind. The meatballs are as big as plums and almost as soft, and they come to the table in a pool of smooth white polenta and dusted with shavings of Pecorino touched with truffles. The artichoke salad (with cherry tomatoes and bits of smoked ricotta) looks less like a country salad than a delicately arranged (and quite delicious) work of food art. The perfectly seared scallops in my antipasto were shipped in from Nantucket, and if you order the charcuterie board, you’ll find that the usual assortment of salumi and hams is enlivened with elegant little blocks of pâté made from chicken livers and calves’ tongues.
“I guess the recession really is over,” said one of my chef friends at the table as we surveyed the selection of pastas, which seemed to grow more elaborate and accomplished (and pricey) each time I dropped in for dinner. Before Gallante fell under Bouley’s spell, he worked with Pino Luongo and Lidia Bastianich, and he has a knack (or compulsion, depending on your point of view) for combining opulent ingredients with old-world goodness and technique. The truffle-soaked gnocchi were gummy and overcooked when I ordered them (and $28), but nobody had any complaints about the seafood-rich “cortecce” noodles (scattered with toasted bread crumbs), or the oxtail ravioli (melting, translucent, with a faint taste of Barolo), or the eggy tortellini, which the kitchen stuffs with a savory mash of braised veal and sweetbreads and serves in a rich fonduta.
Some of the entrée creations tip inevitably into the realm of the baroque. My wet, flabby roast pork seemed to have been steamed not roasted, and the classic Bouley-style poached lobster was sweetened with too much Madeira. If you have $40 or $50 to burn, try the thick, fork-tender veal loin instead, or the gourmet “country” chicken for two, which is baked in a clay pot and garnished with chanterelles and farro. There are plenty of fancy wines to sample at Ciano (you can buy a bottle of ’82 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo for $1,250), and if you have a taste for intricately conceived boom-era desserts, you can get those too. Avoid the insubstantial deconstructed tiramisu in favor of the apple Napoleon. It’s made with poached Honey Crisps and dripped with a cider-based syrup that hovers, like most things at this unexpectedly posh little restaurant, on that delicate borderline between tasty and downright decadent.
Millesime, which opened late last year in an awkward space off the lobby of the Carlton Hotel on Madison Avenue, is another mellifluously named Continental-minded restaurant (the word means “vintage” in French) with familiar throwback dishes on the menu (it’s billed as a “seafood brasserie”) and a well-traveled, even eminent, chef overseeing the kitchen. Laurent Manrique was born in Gascony, trained at Taillevent, among other legendary institutions, and ran several prominent kitchens in New York during the last salad days of French-style haute cuisine (Peacock Alley at the Waldorf-Astoria being the grandest), before decamping in the late nineties to the West Coast. He became a Michelin-starred chef in San Francisco (earning two at the seafood restaurant Aqua), and his return to the city is being treated, in dwindling Francophile circles, like the return of a great grizzled actor to the Broadway stage.
Unfortunately, the haphazard, jury-rigged space at the Carlton still feels less like a grand big-city stage than like the mezzanine dining room of a randomly upscale suburban hotel. But thanks to Manrique and his executive chef, Alan Ashkinaze, you can now get a decent rendition of pike quenelles when you visit, and a velvet chowder laced with bacon and perfectly cooked diced clams. The fish (tuna, bass, red snapper) is properly fresh and served with a minimum of frills, and if you want something slightly more racy, there are five mussels recipes to choose from, including one soaked, Creole style, in curry, coconut milk, and limes. The desserts (orange parfait, stodgy profiteroles, a lemon tart) are passable facsimiles of old-time favorites. If you have to choose one, make it the brioche, which is drenched, like an old-fashioned baba cake, in flagons of Armagnac.