When it’s one’s dubious professional duty to consume roughly six meals per week in the company of a revolving cast of friends and strangers, in a seemingly endless round of overhyped, overlarge, and increasingly predictable restaurants, it’s easy to forget the simple pleasures of dining alone. Or so I thought as I sat down for a late lunch not long ago at Sfoglia, an unobtrusive little trattoria that opened unobtrusively (minimal tastings, no PR, negligible press) several months ago in an unobtrusive corner space on 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue. The room was mostly empty, except for a few solitary fressers enjoying their lunch on a hot June afternoon. I ordered the antipasti (fennel salad, asparagus frittata, salami) and a helping of stewed red peppers with a crumbling of amaretti. I spooned the peppers onto a slice of thick toasty bread and took a bite of frittata. I chewed in contemplative silence. I took another bite. At some point, I may have closed my eyes in a fit of exaggerated foodie reverie. It was the best damn thing I’ve ever tasted.
Hyperbole aside, that’s what dining alone on good food will do. The meal has your full attention. If it’s bad, it’s really bad; if it’s excellent, the excellence is embellished, and the pleasure is yours alone. The same thing happens when you travel, and for those who spend their evenings chasing the hot restaurants downtown, a visit to Sfoglia may seem a little like a trip to a foreign land. There are only ten tables, and the décor seems almost willfully frumpy. There is a stuffed pheasant over the kitchen door and a picture of a pig and an Italian noodle chart (sfoglia is a sheet of egg pasta) on the wall. The restaurant (the proprietors, Ron Suhanosky and Colleen Marnell-Suhanosky, also operate the original Sfoglia, on Nantucket) doesn’t have a liquor license yet, so you have to bring your own wine. Instead of linen napkins, you dine with rolled-up dish towels. Instead of effete flower arrangements, there are bowls of lemons or red peppers on the rickety wooden tables, and, by the entrance, a big crate of freshly dug potatoes.
This threadbare, rustico look is common among nouveau mom-and-pop operations in the city, especially in Brooklyn, but the Suhanosky’s Italianate country cooking takes the whole experience to a different plane. You taste it first in the bread, a crunchy, fluffy mixture of focaccia and ciabatta that Colleen, who is also the house pastry chef, bakes herself. Restaurant critics overdose on bread at their peril, but I couldn’t help tearing off chunks of it, then using them to wipe up the balsamic dressing in my prosciutto-and-peach salad, or the garlicky tomato sauce at the bottom of a bowl of Manila clams. The bread appears as big, crispy croutons in the panzanella salad (with tomatoes and sweet bits of watermelon), and also comes in handy when negotiating the exceptional house pastas, like ribbons of pappardelle folded over a veal, lamb, and pork Bolognese, a linguine special sunk in a rich mash of veal braised in carrots and garlic, and bowls of spaghetti mingled with saffron, white raisins, pine nuts, and creamy dabs of sea urchin.
The menu at Sfoglia changes twice monthly, and with summer here, the Suhanovskys are finding inventive ways of mixing a light, seasonal sweetness into their sturdy country recipes. You’ll find ravioli stuffed with zucchini and mint, and blueberries mixed with wild mushrooms and lavender into platters of risotto. Among entrées, sirloin steak (with poached tripe) has lately been replaced with veal meatballs wrapped in Swiss chard and served with a pesto made with cherries and almonds. Order chicken and it will be baked to a perfect crisp under a brick, in the proper Tuscan style. Order the delicious orata and it comes to the table delicately stuffed with lemon and fennel, steamed in a crinkly skin of parchment. There are green beans to go with all this, tossed in a light tonnato sauce, and zucchini blossoms dipped in egg white and rolled in bread crumbs. The dessert to have is the country tart, filled with blueberries and plums. It has to be baked in advance, like a soufflé, and is big enough for two. If you’re dining alone, do what I did and order it anyway. It’ll taste twice as good.
The Little Owl, which opened not long ago on a leafy stretch of Bedford Street in the West Village, is another neighborly little place where the high quality of the cooking is out of all proportion to the restaurant’s unassuming size. There are ten tables in the tidy white space, and 28 chairs, and the most arresting feature of the room is the ceiling, made from antique stamped tin and painted gold. The menus are printed in neat blue type, and only two items cost over twenty dollars. Thirteen dollars buys several plump grilled scallops served over a green, cheesy risotto mixed with fresh spinach and nuggets of lobster, and for a few dollars less you can get a piece of sushi-grade hamachi that’s seared, placed on a bit of coleslaw, and crowned with crisps of onion. Other appetizers include tubes of fat cavatelli filled with ricotta and plunked in a sauce of chunky tomatoes, fava beans, and bacon, and platters of meatball sliders dusted with shavings of Pecorino cheese and fastened with toothpicks inside tiny roasted-garlic-bread buns.
These intricate little creations are the handiwork of Joey Campanaro, who used to work for Danny Abrams (the Harrison, the Red Cat) and who has perfected that chef’s uniquely pleasing American bistro style. Fans of the Harrison will recognize the grilled New York strip, which Campanaro muffles in a pile of radicchio sautéed with pancetta. The pork chop is a variation of the legendary Red Cat chop, embellished here with hints of fennel, a tangle of dandelion leaves, and soft Parmesan-soaked butter beans. The fish of the day I sampled on one visit was a giant red snapper, served with the head on, with a chaste bowl of olives and celery on the side, and the chicken is suitably crispy and garnished with a toss of asparagus and home fries. Dessert (raspberry beignets, custard tarts, a “brownie cake” served with store-bought gelato) is the only time the Little Owl betrays its small-restaurant roots. Still, considering the price, even they’re not so bad. At $7 apiece, any two of them cost less than a cocktail at many of the hot new restaurants around town.
Address: 1402 Lexington Ave., nr. 92nd St. 212-831-1402
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $12. Entrées, $16 to $26.
Ideal Meal: Antipasti, sea-urchin spaghetti, Swiss-chard-wrapped polpette, stuffed zucchini blossoms, fruit tart.
Note: Until the house gets its liquor license, try the liquor store two blocks south, on the east side of Lexington Avenue.
The Little Owl
Address: 90 Bedford St., nr. Grove St.; 212-741-4695
Hours: Dinner, Monday through Wednesday, 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday to midnight. Sunday to 10 p.m. Brunch, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $7 to $14. Entrées, $17 to $26.
Ideal Meal: Crispy soft-shell crab, pork chop, warm brownie cake.
Note: The wine list offers a nice selection of half-bottles, and the big bottles are generally well chosen and never over $100.
Sfoglia: Maybe it’s the Nantucket connection, but the combination of first-class farm-stand ingredients and artful cooking make this little restaurant special.
The Little Owl: Three stars for the pork chop, in particular, but desserts tend to be the Achilles’ heel of small restaurants, and they bring everything down a notch.