Italian Two Ways

OlanaPhoto: Zach Desart

As the name suggests, Olana, which opened two months ago among the sooty gray office buildings along lower Madison Avenue, is a place of lofty, even romantic, ambitions. The restaurant is named for the Hudson River home of the nineteenth-century landscape painter Frederic Church, and so the windowless room is decorated with murals, some of them backlit, of bucolic Hudson River scenes. There is a round bar up front, circled with chairs covered in red mohair, and the tall wingback chairs in the dining room are covered in red mohair, too. I don’t know how many attentive waiters, sommeliers, and bread boys I encountered during my visits, but if you dine at an off hour, you might find yourself outnumbered ten to one. All of which contributes to a slightly strained stuffiness at Olana, a sense that this overpolished, overembroidered restaurant might be trying a little too hard.

The menu feels overembroidered, too, until the food begins to arrive. Al Di Meglio is the name of the young Italian-American chef in the kitchen, and his rococo, sometimes off-the-wall style reminds me of another flamboyant new Italian chef in town, Fabio Trabocchi, of Fiamma. I counted five extra ingredients (Champagne gelée, mint, and sunflower shoots, among other things) in my very nice striped-bass tartare, and if you order the inventive octopus salad, the tentacles come arranged in tender nickel-size slices and covered with a crisp, flat chickpea pancake. No proper Hudson Valley menu is complete, these days, without a poached duck egg (Di Meglio’s is nicely balanced over a crostini stacked with braised leeks, mashed chicken liver, and foie gras). But the best of these generally elegant appetizer creations are the Italian crêpes called crespelle, which the chef flavors with chestnuts, stuffs with lemony ricotta, and drizzles with mushrooms, pine nuts, and brown-butter sauce.

Di Meglio hews conscientiously to his locavore themes, even when it comes to pasta. The goopy spaghetti alla chitarra contains perhaps a few too many razor clams from Long Island, and my very nice saffron-colored ravioli were filled with fresh Atlantic grouper. The “locally caught” sea-trout entrée tasted too fishy, like a giant sardine, but it turns out that poached flounder goes pretty well with a touch of armagnac and a helping of Swiss chard. Among the meatier dishes, I didn’t spring for the mammoth dry-aged côte de boeuf for two ($98), but the sliced veal strip (“we get it from Utica,” the waiter intoned) is about as good as you’ll find. The “crispy organic chicken” is, in fact, excellently crispy (served with fiddleheads and frizzled artichokes), and the roast rabbit (dressed with apricots and foie gras) is so delicately constructed that even the lunatic rabbit-lovers at my table pronounced it a success.

Olana seems to have attracted a modest but loyal following in its brief existence so far. The bar is crowded most nights with heavyset suit-wearing gentlemen from the nearby office buildings. And with the arrival of the warm weather, the tall louvered windows at the front of the room have been thrown open, to provide a kind of sidewalk-café view of the traffic grinding up Madison Avenue. The desserts, like the savory dishes, offer some relief from these surroundings. They include a wheel of buttery carrot cake, topped with cream-cheese-flavored ice cream, and a crunchy strudel stuffed, inventively, with candied rhubarb. But the most inventive creation of all is something called “strawberry soup.” Along with strawberries, it contains tomatoes, white chocolate, and a scoop of spicy black-pepper ice cream. It’s an improbable combination, but like many things in this improbable little restaurant, it works.

There’s nothing improbable about the animated Mediterranean-style cooking at Michael Psilakis and Donatella Arpaia’s latest restaurant, Mia Dona. It comes at you, in two-fisted, Psilakis-patented style, like the proverbial freight train. Arpaia and the talented Psilakis began their collaboration (they operate the Greek establishments Kefi, on the Upper West Side, and Anthos, in midtown) at a three-star restaurant called Dona, which closed last year because of landlord troubles. Mia Dona, which occupies a narrow railroad-car space among the upscale Indian restaurants along East 58th Street, is not as ambitious or stylish as its namesake. But what the room lacks in ambience (the ceiling is low, the tables are jammed together, the racket is deafening), the kitchen makes up for in quality and cost (nothing on the menu is over $25). Among the heartier dishes, I liked the grilled spiedini (sweetbreads, lamb, and quail, expertly charred, on skewers) and Psilakis’s already legendary crispy rabbit (served atop a mountain of vinegar chips, for $13). Purists may argue that you can’t taste the rabbit (they’re right), but as a dissertation on the pleasures of deep-fried crunchiness, it’s difficult to beat. For something marginally lighter, try the hamachi crudo (drizzled with salt and oil and laid out on a marble slab), or the chitarra pasta (with pepperoncini, strips of zucchini, and Manila clams caked in Parmesan), or even the sliced pork chop (plated with frisée, crumblings of pork, and a wet fried egg). But this is a restaurant for hefty eaters, and the heftiest treats of all are the lamb ribs, which are braised to a fatty tenderness and caked with a rich beet gremolata. If you’re still standing after a slab or two, I recommend the chocolate-hazelnut semifreddo or the cannoli for dessert. Beware: The latter come three to a plate, with ice cream.

Address: 72 Madison Ave., nr. 28th St.; 212-725-4900
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $10 to $18; entrées, $24 to $38.
Ideal Meal: Chestnut crespelle, crispy chicken or veal strip, strawberry soup.
Note: Try the croque madame with a duck egg on top at lunch.
Scratchpad: The location might be a killer, and the décor is slightly overwrought. But we’ll give one star for the ambitious cooking and another for the desserts.

Mia Dona (View Menu)
Address: 206 E. 58th St., nr. Third Ave.; 212-750-8170
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m., Sunday to 9 p.m. Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $9 to $16; entrées, $18 to $25.
Ideal Meal: Spiedini or crispy rabbit, chitarra pasta, lamb ribs, chocolate semifreddo.
Note: Many of these delicacies are available as part of the $25 prix fixe lunch.
Scratchpad: One star for the hearty Italian food, executed with flair. Another for the reasonable prices.

Italian Two Ways