leanor Foa Dienstag

Fiorini—Classic Italian Fare from Lello Arpaia

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If you are looking for a calm, grown up midtown restaurant for lunch, after work, a movie or day of shopping, where the food is excellent, the prices reasonable and you can hear yourself talk, Fiorini (Little Flower) is the place for you.

Owned by Neapolitan-born Lello Arpaia, a 40-year veteran of the New York restaurant scene (La Tavernetta, Lello, Scarlatti, Cellini, Bellini, Acqua Pazza), proud father of Donatella, the television food personality, and Dino, who runs Cellini, Fiorini offers classic regional Italian fare with a distinctly modern touch.

Though no longer in the kitchen, Lello, elegantly tailored, was very much in evidence the night we were invited to sample his Tasting Menu, executed by Executive Chef Xavier Quispilema. Donatella and her husband, who recently had their first child, were also in the house and stopped by to say hello, displaying the family charm and graciousness.

Lello’s quiet and attentive presence – to the food, his guests, the ebb and flow of the evening – helps explain why Fiorini, open since 2006, continues to attract a large crowd, including a lively bar scene (with a Bar Menu perfectly suited to a light supper) that enjoys not only eating well but being treated well.. We sipped a refreshing Prosecco before moving to our comfortable table with its widely spaced seating.

Our meal began with two samples from the Antipasti course, the first, a total winner, Polpo Ai Ferri, Grilled Mediterranean Octopus, a light mix of octopus, tomato, olives, arugula, red onions and one of the most amazing Sicilian caper berries I’ve ever tasted – dense, meaty and delicious. I’d go back just for that dish.

The second sample, Burrata, starred a meltingly creamy mozzarella atop roasted peppers, asparagus and prosciutto di Parma. Fiorini’s wine list is mostly Italian and I very much enjoyed an Italian Chardonnay from the Dolomite Region, Mezzacorona 2010, with my seafood and fish dishes.

From the fresh pasta and risotto menus, we tasted two dishes with seafood highlights: the first was my favorite, Tagliolini Al Caffe, a lovely mix of coffee-colored ribbons of pasta with an abundant mix of rock shrimp, porcini mushrooms and oven roasted tomatoes in a tarragon spiced white wine sauce.

It was followed by a classic Risotto Ai Frutti di Mare, a rich mélange of crabmeat, scallops, shrimp and calamari folded into seafood broth infused super fine Arborio rice.

The highlight of the entire meal was unexpected and still memorable, a whole Mediterranean fish, Branzino, (European seabass) served Neapolitan style, in a light tomato sauce, here named Acqua Pazza (“crazy water”), that elevates the fish to an almost sweet taste – the height of freshness – the likes of which I’ve never experienced before. It was simple, elegant and totally remarkable. I look forward to enjoying it again. Fiorini always features 10 daily specials and Branzino is one of them. If you go, be sure you order this particular version. It’s $34 for the whole fish, which can easily be shared as a main course.

I enjoyed the excellent – not overcooked — pan seared Diver Scallops as well as the impeccable pan seared duck breast on poached pears that followed but, as good as they both were, it is the Branzino that I will go back for. It knocked me out. So did the reasonably priced, house Pinot Noir, Glimmer Creek 2009, from California. It went beautifully with the duck and would go with other meat dishes on the menu, from a grilled veal chop to a grilled chicken paillard.

Desserts in Italian restaurants have come a long way from the tried and true but boring Cannoli and Tiramisu. At Fiorini, our tastings were exceptional. For chocoholics, there is the amazing Zuccotto, a perfect mound of rich, three chocolate and passion fruit mousse cake. Normally, I am not fond of fruit interfering with my chocolate but in this instance, the passion fruit and chocolate, like Fred and Ginger, paired beautifully and belonged together.

Even more unusual was Fiorini’s Baba or sponge cake with a hint of rum, filled with a heavenly Mascarpone cheese custard, and presented, Neapolitan style, with a small glass of Marsala wine on the side, to be poured to your taste. It is not your grandmother’s Baba au Rum. Totally delicious.

A four course Neapolitan Tasting Menu will be prix fixe at $55 (also available a la carte) and available with paired Neapolitan wines at $75.

The back of the restaurant, divided by a lovely, large flower arrangement, is dedicated to a private party room and wine cellar. It would be perfect for a corporate event or a family occasion.

Lello and I, it turns out, are not only fellow expatriates from Naples but born in the very same neighborhood, Vomero, high in the hills of the city. However, it will not be sentiment but taste buds that bring me back to Fiorini.

209 East 56th Street, between Second and Third Avenues


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