Sun 16 Sep 2007
Six of us gathered last Tuesday for dinner at Falai, a small, sleek, irresistible Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was my second visit, having eaten there back in March. The diners were LL and me, our friend Julie (with whom we stayed for part of last week), Terence Hughes of mondosapore fame and his longtime partner Ken, and Gabrio Tosti, the irrepressible owner of the fine little (mainly) Italian wine store De Vino, one block north of Falai on Clinton Street. We were joined later — hours later; it was a long riotous meal — by Gian Luigi Maravalle, proprietor of Tenuta Vitalonga in western Umbria, whose plane was late and whose luggage was lost.
Chef at the restaurant is Iacopo Falai, whose talent is for taking traditional ingredients of northern Italian cuisine, adding a sly inventive touch here and a sly inventive touch there and coming up with food that is delicious and memorable without being cute and tricky. After quite a bit of discussion and diplomacy, the table decided to order the prix fixe menu; here were the choices — Antipasto: Polenta Bianca (chicken liver, dried dates and wild mushrooms “Vellutata”) OR baby octopus with fresh celery, string beans, Granny Smith apples, American caviar. Pasta: Gnudi of ricotta cheese, baby spinach, brown butter, crema di latte, sage. Carne/Pesce: Manzo (petit filet, butternut squash and orange puree, blood orange fennel salad) OR Branzino (potato-wrapped sea-bass, leek, white asparagus, huckleberry sauce). Dolce: passion fruit souffle. Four courses for $55. Some members of our party tried to negotiate a menu without the gnudi, and the efficient, amenable and incredibly, infinitely patient manager Jiordona — pictured here with Terry Hughes (in his usual serious mood) — even offered such a deal at $50, but in the end, everyone got all the courses.
We began by quickly downing a bottle of the crisp, floral and delightful Ronco delle Betulle Tocai Friulano 2005 from the restaurant’s wine list ($44). After that, we consumed five bottles, two that I brought and three brought in by Gabrio. The first of Gabrio’s wines — and we pretty much scarfed this down too — was a new rosé, the fresh, delicate and tasty Whispering Angel 2006 — everybody who thinks that’s a terrible name raise your hand! — from Chateau d’Esclans in the Côtes de Provence; Sacha Lichine bought the property in 2006. This dry rosé offers whispers of crushed raspberries and strawberries and feathery hints of stones and dried flowers for pleasing effect. The high-concept label is attractive, the wine retails for about $22, and it’s the only rosé that Gabrio sells.
We drank these gentle opening salvos during talk and bread — Iacopo Falai is a former pasty chef, and the breads are excellent — and appetizers, of which the octopus got best marks. You can see from the image how great the plate looked. The baby octopus was exceedingly tender — it’s boiled first and then grilled — and the curl of celery and the slender batons of apple provided crisp contrasts in texture and fresh flavors. Not that the Polenta Bianca was any slouch. Indeed the combination of the creamy chicken livers and slightly crusty polenta with the sweet fruitiness of the dates and wild earthiness of the mushrooms was heady and flavorful, but the dish was definitely rustic compared to the finesse of the octopus.
Next came the gnudi, a carefully shaped oval-like nest of ricotto cheese and shredded, cooked spinach bathed in a nutty brown butter sauce with a touch of cream; leaning against this delicate construct was one sage leaf. Rich and creamy, these gnudi disappeared into our mouths in about three minutes, leaving us wishing that they had not vanished so quickly.
I picked up a bottle of Domaine Leccia Petra Bianca Patrimonio 1998 ($25) at Crossroads Wines & Liquors on 14th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues at the suggestion of Nicolas Palazzi, who is French through and through yet bears the name of his father and honorable ancestors from Corsica. The Palazzi family owns Bordeaux properties in Cotes de Bourg, Entre-Deux-Mers and Graves, and Nicolas lives in New York nine months a year trying to market the wines. Anyway, he and I are email correspondents, and he, mindful of his Corsican heritage, had delved through the stock at the totally eccentric and treasure-filled wine store, found this wine and sent out a bulletin. “Petra Bianca” refers not to the wine’s color — it’s red, made from 100 percent niellucciu grapes — but to the chalky clay soil that nurtures the vineyards of Corsica’s Patrimonio region. The wine was imported by Kermit Lynch in Berkeley, Ca.
I’ll confess that I didn’t love the wine, though it was very interesting. It opened with whiffs of cedar and eucalyptus, scents of walnuts and walnut shell, dried spice and brown sugar, the sign of a mature red. In the mouth, the wine was dense and chewy, formidably tannic and sporting a startling hit of acid. It smoothed out and became more palatable in 15 or 20 minutes, but the whole time it was in my glass I kept thinking, “What happened to the fruit?” Of course, it’s nine years old; it would be instructive to try more recent vintages.
By this time, of course, our entrees had arrived. When I dined at Falai in March, I had ordered the manzo, asking for it to be cooked to medium rare, but what came to the table was medium or more. This time I ordered the beef rare, so it came to me at a perfect medium rare temperature and rosy-red color. The preparation at the end of the winter included parsnip puree, red wine-cooked shallots and wild mushrooms and a Marsala-truffle sauce; more in keeping with the season — and it was hot in New York last week — the petit filet came with a butternut squash and orange puree and a blood orange-fennel salad. It was a sumptuous yet completely balanced and appropriate presentation. I did not, alas — or I don’t remember, alas — tasting the branzino.
Next we opened the Rosso Ca’ de Merlo 1998 from Guiseppe Quintarelli, who is often called the “Master of the Veneto” or the “King of the Veneto.” This is the kind of wine that at first sniff and sip you say, “Well, here’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” meaning that in completely the best way. This wine also came from Crossroads and cost about $76; it was imported by Robert Chadderton in New York. Despite the name, the wine has nothing to do with the merlot grape. It is, essentially, a sort of super-Valpolicella, made from corvino grapes (taken from a single hillside vineyard) in the traditional ripasso method in which the wine undergoes a second fermentation on the skins of the dried grapes used to make Amarone wines, thus providing additional strength and tannin. Nothing tannic here, however; the Rosso Ca’ de Merlo ’98 was lovely, smooth and mellow, subtle and supple, composed of black cherry, currant and plum flavors deeply infused with dried spice, potpourri and black tea with touches of moss and clean earth. What a treat!
Not to be outdone, Gabrio rushed back to his store and returned with a bottle of the Merlanico d’Orta de Conciliis 2000, a Vino da Tavola (two-thirds merlot, one-third aglianico) produced by Lombardy’s Barone Giulio Pizzini Piomarta; the importer is Vignaioli Selections in New York. The price at Gabrio’s store is $150. This is, frankly, a stunning wine, deep and rich and flavorful, and it gets deeper and richer and more flavorful as moments pass. It opens beautifully, warmly in the glass, offering notes of cedar and tobacco, leather, toasted hazelnuts and wheatmeal, black currants and plums with hints of wild berry, earth and minerals. Retaining considerable tannins, the wine is dense and chewy, packed with spicy wood, yet generously supplied with black and red fruit flavors, that wane as the large and fairly austere finish takes over. And what a match for the medium rare beef filet!
By this time Maravalle had arrived, sans luggage and sans vino for us to try, so again Gabrio rushed over to his store to get something from Tenuta Vitalonga. He returned with a bottle of Terra di Confine 2004, a blend of 80 percent montepulciano grapes and 20 percent merlot. As Maravalle pointed out, this is a young wine from young grapes, planted only four years ago, so we were not surprised that the wine was bold and brash, wild and robust, bursting with currants, plums and dark-chocolate-covered raspberries nestled in dense, leathery tannins. Another wine destined for pairing with hearty red meat dishes, it sells for $25. I would try it from 2008 or ’09 through 2012 or ’14.
Were we finished?
With wine, yes, but not with dinner, because dessert came, a sumptuous, luxurious, yet light-hearted passion fruit souffle.
And then we gathered our gear, our notes, our bags and shuffled out of Falai, by far the last to leave, hoping against hope that we wouldn’t have hangovers the next day.
Falai is at 68 Clinton Street, near Rivington. Call (212) 253-1960.
De Vino is at 30 Clinton Street. Call (212) 228-0073 or visit de-vino.com.
The top image of the restaurant, shot from behind the small bar area looking toward the back, is by Jeremy Liebman for New York magazine. The rest of the images in Falai were shot by LL or FK.