As anyone who’s ever peeked inside a New York City restaurant kitchen knows, the majority of meals, from high French to low delicatessen, are cooked by Latin Americans. And as anyone who’s ever flipped through a Zagat guide knows, Italian is everybody’s favorite flavor. So it’s surprising that it’s taken this long to encounter the collision of Italian and Latino on the plate. The Underground Gourmet, no stranger to peeking past kitchen doors and flipping through Zagats, has noticed the stirrings of this new culinary cross-pollination at two similarly named, like-minded restaurants, Miranda, in Williamsburg, and Matilda, in the East Village.
The two-month-old Miranda is a mom-and-pop shop done up in the simple style of a neighborhood trattoria. Sasha Rodriguez, the Queens-bred daughter of a Dominican father and Irish-American mother, runs the kitchen, while her fiancé, Mauricio Miranda, of Guerrero, Mexico, works the dining room like a young Silvano Marchetto—greeting guests as if they were long lost relatives, recommending bottles of (often organic) wine, and occasionally breaking into a little cha-cha-cha dance whenever the joy of owning and operating a restaurant with the woman he loves becomes too much.
The couple met while working at Verbena six years ago, started dating, and soon dreamed of opening a place of their own. What kind of place they didn’t know. Subsequent stints at Alto and the C.I.A. Italian program (Sasha) and L’Impero and Spigolo (Mauricio) convinced them that combining the Latin American cooking they grew up on with their love for Italian food was a good way to go.
And for the most part it is, thanks to the fact that the menu doesn’t hit you over the head with the fusion conceit. The problem with cross-culinary cooking of this sort is that it can seem far-fetched or forced, like the gastronomic equivalent of an arranged marriage. Not so here: Latinized arancini are a little too soft and crumbly on the outside, but they’re dappled with a bright tomato sauce and filled with a winning mixture of chopped spinach and Mexican chorizo. A salsa guajillo is a good, smoky match for breaded and fried smoked mozzarella. Other appetizers, like mussels marinara, and a sparkling salad of baby romaine, ricotta salata, and sun-dried tomato, for example, simply forgo fusion altogether.
Pastas are available in half and full portions and include slightly overcooked orecchiette mingled with peas, mozzarella, and more of that excellent spicy chorizo that Mauricio imports from Toluca, the world chorizo capital, he says. A housemade pappardelle is more carefully cooked; it’s firm and tender and served with a subtly complex lamb-and-mole-poblano ragù—a dish you might imagine as a favorite staff meal among the better (Latino-dominated) Italian kitchens in town.
There’s a belief among the city’s jaded restaurant cognoscenti that appetizers rule, that’s it’s all downhill after the first course, which is why the small-plates movement has taken off. It’s the opposite at Miranda, where things get better as the meal progresses, and it pays to pace yourself in order to fully appreciate entrées like deeply flavorful Rioja-braised short ribs or a moist and juicy pork tenderloin served on a clump of risotto and drizzled with a tangy mole verde. This dish is highly recommended not only by the Underground Gourmet but also by Mauricio, who smiled broadly when we ordered it and shifted his body into a series of convulsive movements that looked like the opening steps of the Macarena.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and the desserts we tried at Miranda were a bit of a letdown. Ices in unusual flavors like cucumber-lime and jamaica were fine and refreshing. But a bland chocolate bread pudding was as dry as the heel of a day-old baguette.
Back across the river at Matilda, a five-month-old spot off Avenue C, the Tusc-Mex menu came about as naturally for its married owners, Maristella Innocenti and Esteban Molina, as the Latino-Italian menu did for the owners of Miranda. Like Mauricio, Esteban Molina grew up in Mexico, and he’s given Matilda a strong Mexican identity with antojitos like guacamole, tacos, and quesadillas. The catch here is that even those most standard of Mexican snacks are tweaked with Italian accents, courtesy of Innocenti (who met Molina at the Tuscan restaurant I Coppi, where they both used to cook): The basil-flecked guacamole is scooped up here with both tortilla chips and strips of house-baked focaccia; tasty quesadillas encase melted mozzarella and Swiss chard sautéed in garlic and oil; and the tacos alla fiorentina, when stuffed with tidbits of rosemary-scented filet mignon that haven’t been cooked past medium-rare, prove that grana padano shavings and arugula unequivocally belong inside a warm corn tortilla.
Some experiments work better than others. Plump potato gnocchetti take surprisingly well to their cilantro-spiked pesto, as do borlotti beans to chorizo (chorizo being a favorite bridge-gapper in Mex-Italian cuisine), but tomato-and-basil-sauced chilaquiles alla toscana only made us long for the real thing. A smattering of hominy lends some extra texture to a soothing bowl of “pozole a fagioli,” or cranberry-bean soup. In general, though, the appetizers outshone mains like a hulking stinco d’agnello, or braised lamb shank, garnished incongruously with orange segments and soft broccoli rabe.
Still, you have to admire the courage it took Matilda’s owners to try something new, to look for commonalities in their own cooking and explore novel combinations. And it’s impossible not to notice the warm atmosphere and friendly service, the affordable wines culled from Tuscany, Mexico, and beyond, and the homespun charm of the cozy space. All new fusions need a few pioneers, brave enough to challenge conventions and savvy enough to conjure a Mexican risotto ball or an Italian taco.