Last night was a beautiful night. Not in the sense of the weather actually being beautiful, of course, but in the sense of beautiful company, delicate and endearing cuisine, and a warm sense of relaxation. To celebrate the start of my birthday week (girls have such things, don’t ask me to explain), I had dinner with one of my most favorite people on this earth, my college roommate, Lindsey. The oppressive one-hundred-degree New York City heat, which always seems to feel hotter than the same temperature anywhere else would, gave way to aggressive, relentless torrents of rain, and seeking solace within a cozy, warmly lit restaurant among the reassuring buzz of others’ conversations seemed the loveliest way to spend an evening.
While at the University of Maryland, Linds and I shared an affinity for many things; day trips to Baltimore’s Harbor East to peruse the sale racks at South Moon Under and food carts on the streets, spicy tuna rolls from a local “Japanese” take-out spot, and the occasional foreign film. Now, though we live in two different major cities with hundreds of miles between us, there are still certain commonalities that can’t be broken; a love for Anthropologie dresses and travel magazines (and traveling, though her passport has far more stamps than mine), turning any trip (small or large) into an excuse to buy a guide-book, French macarons, and of course, amazing food.
Preferably Italian food.
I am one-half Italian (though my palate is four-fifth’s Italian), and Lindsey studied abroad in Rome for several months during college. She was lucky enough to not just sample, but immerse herself in real Italian food culture, from the heart of Rome where she lived her day-to-day life, to the various Italian cities she traveled to. To my extreme envy and delight, she even visited the famous pizzeria of “Eat, Pray, Love” stardom, Da Michele in Naples. The stories, of both food and culture, have largely contributed to the placement of Italy at the top of my must-visit destination list. But more about that later…
This visit provided an obvious excuse to indulge at a restaurant I’d been hankering to try, but had since been lacking the proper occasion to do so. I engaged in my normal bout of poking around in my arsenal of restaurant search engines: New York Magazine, OpenTable, UrbanSpoon, Yelp, etc. But one spot kept stubbornly inching back into my mind, despite my desire to branch out from the Italian fare I so often quell cravings with. I had vague memories of Cara returning home from a dinner date with a faint glow that I quickly learned was more associated with the quality of the meal than anything else. “You have to go to ‘Inoteca,” she said with a hazy smile. “That may have been the best meal I’ve ever had.”
And so we went. For me, that required dodging through traffic on foot through the torrential downpour, arriving at the hostess stand soaked to the bone, and being pointed informed by the hostess where the bathroom was, in case I wanted to “dry off.” For Lindsey, it required easily hailing a cab as it started to drizzle, and arriving at the hostess stand looking fresh and collected. Typical.
But honestly, once nestled in a corner booth with two long-stemmed glasses of wine before us (white for me, Sangiovese for her), it was easy to forget about the pouring rain, endless heat, and anything else undesirable. Isn’t that the joy of a great meal with great company? The complete and utter escape it offers as you lose yourself in this brief but tangible window of time you’ve allotted to indulge in life’s most simple and basic pleasures – social enjoyment and self-governed gluttony.
‘Inoteca, like many of New York’s trendy and overly frequented restaurants, plays up a “small plates” menu. There are pros and cons to this style of eating: a pro being it enables diners to try a much wider variety of dishes than they would normally be able to; a major con is the price of these plates, while seemingly cheap compared to normal sized portions, add up very quickly and can result in spending much more on one meal than you’d budgeted. Hence the appeal to the restaurant as a business.
We started with a plate of bruschette, small yet thick and tender slices of Italian bread smothered with one of ten toppings. Our selection included some Italian classics like pepperonta, a veritable salsa of sweet roasted peppers, and caponata, a sweet and sour combination of roasted eggplant, raisins, and ripe acidic tomato. Another slice of bread was slathered with the best olive tapenade I’ve tasted; a tangy course spread of chopped green and black olives with excellent bite and a hint of savor. A plump mound of refreshing ricotta and minced tomato drizzled with green olive oil embraced another.
The winner for me, though, was far-and-away the mascarpone-fig bruschette. The round of bread was topped with a smooth cap of creamy mascarpone (pronounced maz-carp-oh-nay) that was so smooth and rich it was more like a layer of freshly churned sweet cream butter. For a bread and butter lover, this was pretty much a shoe-in. The sweet, dense slightly-dried fig in the center of the bruschette provided just the right amount of resistance and chew against the softer textures of the mascarpone and fresh bread. Washed down with a cold, tart sip of dry white wine, it was all I could do to refrain from kissing my fingers and gesturing a “bellissimo!” to the room.
To round out the meal (is really that gastronomically incorrect to have a meal of just bread, wine and condiments?) we ordered the romaine grigliata (grilled romaine salad) with a roasted garlic dressing. While I’m still not sure how I feel about grilled romaine – it reminded me a bit of a soggy salad that had been left out in the sun – the roasted garlic dressing was loaded with sharp parmesan, and I couldn’t get enough of the cheesy garlic goodness. Despite the questionable textures, the dish tended to work and we devoured every last bit, including the pickled red onion garnish.
For the main course, we shared the tagliatelle with roasted pork ragu (the pork was from a local farm, no less). Upon reflection, I’m fairly certain I would have enjoyed this pasta dish far more if I had not been stuffed to the gills with nearly half a loaf of bread, the cheese equivalent of half a cup of butter, and enough parmesan garlic sauce to ruin a lactose-intolerant’s week. That being said, the tagliatelle was fresh, dense and perfectly aldenté which I always find impressive with fresh pasta, and the pork ragu nailed the classic Italian sauce balance of savory, sweet, and slow-cooked. Have I had better pasta dishes? Probably. But in technique and execution, this pasta dish held its own in a city-wide sea of Italian trattorias.
It was with an extremely full stomach and elated mood that we left ‘Inoteca and dove back into the pouring stormy night. I snuck a glance back in at those dining, and observed the happy couples and groups of friends enjoying their company and a meal. That’s what I take away from ‘Inoteca – a place where socializing and enjoying great food are both paramount, yet of equal focus. This isn’t a “scene” where the food is showy but under delivers and all you care about is whether your picture will make it on Page 6. And it’s not a place where you need to sit in silent awe and reverence of your meal, any conversation centering on an avid analysis of each bite. It’s good, solid, delicious Italian in a comfortable, homey environment where easy conversation organically flows. Which is exactly how I picture it being in Italy.