Not Just Another Wine Bar

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

A tale of two lower East Sides unfolded recently on the corner of Allen and Delancey Streets. It all began four months ago, when two twentysomethings recently sprung from cooking school and inspired by a jaunt through the Italian countryside opened Sorella, a stylish Piedmontese wine bar with a façade that rivals Momofuku Ko in its studied inscrutability. Then, earlier this month, Sorella’s venerable neighbor, the cheap-eats mecca Fried Dumpling, shut its doors for good. Social critics and dumpling devotees might link these two events, forging some socio-culinary moral about the evils of gentrification, but the Underground Gourmet—no stranger to the greasy charms of five-for-a-dollar pork-and-chive potstickers—is a bit more conflicted. For one thing, although the loss of a good dumpling dive is a cause for concern, there is a small measure of comfort in the fact that commensurate deals can be had in the vicinity—including Fried Dumpling’s own sister establishment on Mosco Street. For another, we’ve become too attached to the distinctive appeal of Sorella to hold its conspicuous elegance and culinary refinement against it.

It’s true, this town is flooded with “wine bars” serving “small plates,” but Sorella is different. You might notice this the moment you enter the preternaturally civilized space and take a stool at the bar opposite a wine-washed balsa-wood wall inlaid with photos of Piedmont, or a softly upholstered seat in the glass-ceilinged annex in the back, beneath glittering lighting fixtures. Or perhaps when the fresh-baked grissini arrive, tucked into a paper cone and presented like jewels on a thick linen napkin. There is an air of luxury about the place, but it’s a reasonably affordable luxury, conveyed through the inherent richness of the food and celebration of the region that inspired it.

Piedmont is known for, among other things, truffles, rich egg pastas and serious risotto, gianduja desserts, and some of the best wine in Italy. Chef Emma Hearst and her partner Sarah Krathen translate that culinary aesthetic into an appealing and accessible menu and a multiregional wine list that devotes a section to Dolcetto, a softly floral, high-acid wine that’s food-friendly and affordable, especially in comparison with the region’s blockbuster Barolos and Barbarescos. On the wine aspect of the wine bar, the staff is well versed, and the suggested pairings well chosen, though the reds could be served a bit cooler.

The menu itself refrains from traditional conventions of small and large, appetizer and entrée, by using the much more lyrical (and somewhat confusing) Italian. Qualcosina, or “A Little Something,” defines eleven not-so-small small plates, priced $8 to $16, while stasera abbiamo, or “Tonight We Have,” refers to a weekly changing trio of so-called entrées (a meat, a fish, and a pasta), a two-course prix fixe of sorts that includes the choice of one qualcosina. To simplify matters, just remember that everything is roughly the same size, artfully plated and very big on texture, often in the form of toasted nuts or fried pork. Take, for instance, the paté de fegato, Hearst’s signature dish, if she can be said to already have one. A rectangle of “duck-fat English-muffin” bread is toasted, spread with an airy but deeply flavored chicken-liver mousse, crowned with a manicured fried egg, and sprinkled with bits of candied bacon. This Piedmontese Egg McMuffin is undeniably delicious, but no more so than the grilled quail, a moist specimen splayed over a bed of fried potatoes infused with tangerine juice, intermingled with Taggiasca olives, and splattered with beet butter.

The tiniest little gnocchi imaginable are bathed in Castelrosso-cheese cream and garnished with sautéed diced pear. The fresh-egg pasta tajarin (dialect for tagliolini) is sauced with a savory lamb ragù, then enriched with a dollop of peppery ricotta and strewn with pistachios. Meat-stuffed agnolotti look almost spartan by comparison, but looks are deceiving: The plump and springy pockets rest on a reduction as rich and savory as their filling of pork, beef, and Parmesan. Hearst is also as accomplished a risotto cook as anyone who’s ever stirred the rice pot for twenty minutes, and two excellent takes on that dish—a bacon-and-cauliflower version (a qualcosina) and a scarlet-hued beet-and-Robiolina “main course”—prove it. Dieters should know that the kitchen doesn’t really do “light”: The closest attempt is an escarole salad, full of nuts and Pecorino and dressed in a brown-butter vinaigrette, and an inventive take on vitello tonnato that douses slivers of veal tongue and pulled chicken in a cool tuna sauce with crunchy celery, sculpted beets, and poppy seeds. Even Ligurian anchovies get the royal treatment, draped as they are over a mound of lemon butter, to be spread on crumbly flatbread with a swipe of hazelnut-strewn salsa verde. The other seafood selection resides under stasera abbiamo, and on our visits happened to be a well-cooked fillet of cod, scattered with mini-croutons, pine nuts, and olives, and anchored in a smooth and buttery potato purée. The meat of the week was actually a sandwich: a tasty but way too dense meatball on a crusty roll with Pecorino and onion jus and a side of “melted” cabbage.

You’d be foolish to forgo dessert, especially the bicerin, which is like a chocolate pot de crème but better, thanks to gooey rivulets of espresso fudge. The torta, a wedge of orange génoise with Marsala zabaglione, is also first-rate, and a good match for an expertly pulled espresso—as caffeine fiends know, a restaurant rarity. The neighborhood may be down a dumpling dive, but it’s up a well-plied La Marzocco machine, which isn’t something to take for granted.

Address: 95 Allen St., nr. Delancey St.; 212-274-9595
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday brunch noon to 9 p.m.
Prices: Qualcosina, $8 to $16; two-course prix fixe, $26 to $32.
Ideal Meal: Anchovies, risotto with bacon and cauliflower, grilled quail, orange génoise.
Note: The prix fixe is available only between 6 and 10 p.m.
Scratchpad: Aside from the refined cooking, what elevates Sorella above the usual small-plates wine bar and into the realm of four “U.G.” stars is that it’s run more like a finely tuned Danny Meyer establishment like, say, Union Square Cafe—where chef Emma Hearst, incidentally, did time.

Not Just Another Wine Bar