Crab & Avocado Salad
Come winter, I start craving pasta. (Not that I don’t in the spring, summer, and fall, too.) But when the wind is whipping frigid air, slush is everywhere, and cabs are few and far between, a warm bowl of pasta is a magical thing. If you’ve ever had one of Michael White’s renditions, like his fusilli with octopus and bone marrow, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
But a good bowl of pasta isn’t as easy to find as you might think. Which is why a random Urban Daddy email about Veal Ravioli on the West Side piqued my interest. I was supposed to head downtown to Vic’s in Noho, but the weather seemed too miserable and my husband didn’t feel like trekking downtown, so we headed west for Italian at a new restaurant called Masseria Dei Vini near Columbus Circle. Why you may ask? Because I’d been to their first restaurant, La Masseria Ristorante in the Theater District, and it’s pretty good (especially their gnocchi with black truffles); definitely one of the better options for a pre-theater bite to eat.
Squid Ink Spaghetti with Clams
So I was game to try their latest venture in a bit of a food no man’s land; on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen, just west of Columbus Circle. When I arrived, the restaurant was buzzing with a mishmosh of Italian guys speaking Italian and neighborhood folks. The space itself is good looking, furbished with a white marble-topped bar, a backlit, glass wine wall along the back and white tablecloths; much less gimmicky than their rustic farmhouse in the Theater District. (Masseria, in fact, means farmhouse.) My favorite feature of Masseria Dei Vini is the pizza oven in the rear. Every Neapolitan-style pizza comes topped with ingredients imported from Naples. Their roster includes Stracciatella with Parma Ham, Mozzarella Fior De Latte with Sausage, and a Three Cheese Pie with Black Truffles, all finely charred with ample bubbles in the dough.
But it was the pasta section I was after that night, an impressive lineup by chef Pino Coladonato of Southern Italian classics, many homemade, and some with a modern twist. There’s freshly made Pappardelle Bolognese, Homemade Cheese Ravioli in Tomato Sauce Capri-style, and a Cavatelli with a Frutti Di Mare sauce. Everything sounded so good I didn’t want to choose between them. Thankfully, they oblige half orders, so you can sample a few different kinds in one sitting. Whatever you do, make sure the Squid Ink Spaghetti is one of them. These briny noodles are tossed with a deliciously simple mix of Baby Clams, Garlic and White Wine Sauce — right up there with some of the best pastas I’ve had this year. And the Veal Agnoletti is just as good. Delicate little ravioli tucked with rich, ground veal, and anointed with an addictive wild mushroom sauce I’d happily eat well into spring.
Strawberry & Vanilla Panna Cotta
If you’re not in the mood for hearty foods that make you want to hibernate, you might consider ordering the Oven-Roasted Whole Branzino, an exceedingly fresh and moist filet, showered with olives and capers. To start, we tried a special that evening; a zippy salad of Crab, Artichoke, String Beans and Roasted Red Peppers. Or sample an appetizer of Grilled Baby Octopus with Cuttlefish on a Fava Bean Puree with a unique and crunchy addition of fried onion rings. There’s plenty of other Southern Italian plates, like Oven Roasted Prawns in a Sea Salt Crust or Raw Mediterranean Shrimp Carpaccio.
We finished our meal with a fine Panna Cotta, layered with strawberry gelatin, and a so-so Choux Pastry Puff filled with vanilla and chocolate cream. As the restaurant’s name suggests, there’s an emphasis on wines, specifically Italian ones, with oodles by the glass as well as a great and complex Sardinian Vermentino called Lugore from Sardus Pater. Masseria Dei Vini feels like the kind of restaurant that used to exist in Little Italy before Little Italy lost its allure (and the majority of its real estate). It’s the kind of restaurant that was the reason Little Italy existed in the first place; for a taste of Italy and respectable red sauce here in the states.