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First Bite: Quality Italian

corngnudi

Quality Italian’s Corn Gnudi

It’s refreshing to find a restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  So many restaurants do, and who can blame them really?  You invest a fortune in a space and concept, then pray it will succeed.  That’s serious business… but it’s still just dinner.

That’s exactly what I love about Quality Italian.  It’s just plain fun.   And the food happens to be excellent if you don’t take it too seriously.  Sure, you could criticize their pie-shaped Chicken Parmigiana as being cheeky.   Like a pizza, it’s served in a pizza pan and sliced with a metal pizza cutter, but diners can’t seem to get enough of this cheesy,  chicken goodness.  Then, there’s the Baked Clams, which are topped not with the usual breadcrumbs, but instead with toasted Angel Hair Pasta & Parsley, and finished tableside with a white wine butter sauce.  Angel hair pasta on top of clams may sound gimmicky, but the toasted strands lend the dish an incredible crunch, the perfect foil for the sweet, briny crustaceans beneath.  It’s as delicious as it is whimsical.  So is the Reese’s Peanut Butter Biscotti, an oversized, dark chocolate biscotti flecked with peanut butter chips.

That biscotti is sold at the counter in the ground floor bar-cum-market, aptly named, Standing Room, which is open from 4 pm until midnight.   There, you can grab items as varied as espresso, a bag of dried, homemade pasta to-go, or housemade Nutella (yum!).  You can even grab a cup of Gelato Cake made by the pastry chef, Cory Colton, who just happened to attend Ice Cream University, so you can trust he knows his stuff.  He dreams up cake flavors, like Tartufo, layered with Praline Cake, Gianduja Gelato and Raspberry Meringue or Ricotta Cheesecake, made with Cream Cheese Cake, Ricotta Gelato & Cherry Icing.  If you want to linger and sample a few bites without committing to dinner, you can stand around a table, or along the bar and order a glass of wine and bites, the likes of Chips & Caviar, cutely composed of fried Purple Fingerlings, Trout Roe and Chives, a Lobster Fra Diavolo Roll, or a Grilled Mortadella “Hot Dog.”

Branzino with Pesto Rosso

Branzino with Pesto Rosso

But I highly recommend you try the upstairs eatery, serving the cuisine du jour, Italian-American with a decidedly steakhouse slant.  What was just recently a sterile Staples store has been converted into a funky, AvroKO-designed restaurant called Quality Italian, right down the street from its older sibling, Quality Meats.  In the past few years, Michael Stillman has rejuvenated the Fourth Wall Restaurant brand, created by his father, Alan Stillman — known for stalwarts, like The Post House, Smith & Wollensky, and Maloney & Porcelli —  with younger, hipper additions, like The Hurricane Club, Quality Meats and now Quality Italian.  Just past the first floor Standing Room is a beautiful, white marble staircase leading to an industrial, “butcher shop chic” space, furbished with wood & tile floors, whitewashed brick walls, two-tone, red & brown leather banquettes, and an impressive wine wall dividing the bar from the main dining room.  The only design element that puzzles me are several paintings, hanging backwards, so you can’t actually view a painting, just the back of the frame with its wire and brown paper, but maybe that’s an aesthetic thing that’s over my foodie head.

Who cares about art when there’s warm, butter-topped rolls, dusted with herbs and sea salt to be had?  I would die a happy woman dining on these dreamy, doughy nibbles alone, but there’s too much else on the menu to sample, so limit yourself to one roll if you have the willpower.  And whatever you do, start with those Baked Clams I mentioned as well as the Blackened Scallop Carpaccio, accented with celery, cannellini beans and Calabrian chili, plated over a luscious cauliflower puree, and a Yellowtail Crudo with a Shishito Peperonata, capers and a bright dose of Lime.  Of course, there are pastas (after all, it’s an Italian joint), but these have a unique twist, like Dry-Aged Porterhouse Agnolotti or an incredibly light on its feet, Corn Gnudi with super sweet kernels of corn and a potent dusting of Pistachio, Basil, and Black Pepper that takes the dish to another level, and makes it one of my favorites on the menu.

Chocolate & Olive Oil Torte

Chocolate & Olive Oil Torte

If you want to go the steakhouse route, you can get a Beefsteak Tomato & Straciatella Salad, Bone-in Sirloin, Veal Chop or Filet capped with Gorgonzola Dolce, along with Tuscan fries, but most everything has an Italian slant a la the Veal Chop Milanese, Cream Spinach Carbonara, Rigatoni & Meatballs, and a cold Vinegar Broccoli-Garlic Salad that’s the perfect summer partner for a hefty meat.   If you want something a tad more sophisticated, try the wondrously fresh Branzino topped with Grilled Lemons and a Pesto Rosso, made with sundried tomatoes and almonds, or the Berkshire Pork Chop topped with Cherry Saba and an herbaceous fistful of Sage.

The chef is Scott Tacinelli, who’s worked at both Quality Meats and Park Avenue under chef Craig Koketsu before taking the lead at Quality Italian, and making an impressive debut at that.  Don’t forget to save room for Cory Colton’s desserts, especially a wickedly moist, chocolate-glazed Chocolate and Olive Oil Torte sided by a Nougatine Semifreddo and Balsamic Strawberries to offset some of the richness of the cake.  And there’s a standout selection of Gelati and Sorbetti, including Strawberry-Basil Sorbet over cubed watermelon and mint, or a tangy Ricotta Gelato, scattered with figs, pine nuts and a housemade Orange & Sage Honey.

Like Quality Meats, there’s still plenty dried, aged meats & chops to be had, but I’d suggest you focus on Quality Italian’s new and delightfully inventive Italian-American fare.

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