New York is a tough restaurant town, but some restaurants quietly keep on going because their food is great, their service warm and their prices affordable. So it’s no surprise that Gradisca, a lovely, neighborhood Italian restaurant – that has become a destination for many — is proudly celebrating its 13th anniversary on West 13th Street. They have every reason to be proud of the food and atmosphere they’ve created.
Gradisca is named after a voluptuous character in Fellini’s Amarcord who embodies warmth, generosity and the good life. It’s situated in a space — with a front dining room, L-shaped wooden bar and large back room – that reaches back seventy years to New York’s past. The restaurant’s unpretentious red brick walls are papered with the location’s history, including a print advertising its former incarnation as Reno Sweeney, a renowned jazz club and cabaret of the 1970s.
Today, diners come to Gradisca for a blend of innovative and traditional Italian dishes, using both the freshest of locally-grown and imported ingredients, incorporating classic Italian recipes and customs – especially the memorable pasta, handmade by owner Massimo Galeano’s mother, Catarina. As part of the restaurant’s celebration, Gradisca is bringing back some favorite dishes from the past as well as adding new ones that, no doubt, will soon become classics. Our dinner, courtesy of Gradisca, featured some of the restaurant’s signature dishes.
I was immediately impressed with the rosemary-scented olives and delicious bread brought to the table while we sipped a white wine from Sicily (2011 Grillo Viognier Rina Ianca ) and debated what to order. It augured well.
The Tuna Tartare ($16), moist, delicate and super fresh, was imaginatively paired and beautifully plated with a delicious compote of shallots cooked down to their essential sweetness, then enhanced by a reduction of balsamic vinegar. It was followed by two equally impressive antipasti.
I’m not a huge meat eater, but I have to say that I loved the raw Carpaccio of Manzo Waygu Beef ($17) a high-quality beef so thinly sliced that it fairly melted in my mouth, topped by dabs of black truffle cream sauce. Ummm. My companion, though, preferred the raw Pacific Halibut Carpaccio ($16), beautifully rimmed with an arugula pesto sauce, and sprinkled with a soft cow’s milk cheese, stracchino, with the creamy consistency of crème fraiche.
All three dishes, gorgeous to behold, get a 10 for presentation.
Pasta is the heart of the matter at Gradisca and, quite simply, it is fabulous. Our favorite was the Buffalo Ricotta Lemon Ravioli with Almonds, Shrimp and Eggplant ($25) – rich and creamy yet somehow light and delicate. It’s just an amazing dish and I’d rush right back to have it again. It was closely followed by another specialty of Mama Galeano, her hand-crafted meat-filled Tortellini with a Cream Sauce ($30 for a full size portion). It melted in my mouth. Pure pasta ambrosia! A glass of Chianti Classico from Tuscany ($12) paired well with the pasta dishes.
Desserts in Italian restaurants are usually a let down. That was definitely not the case at Gradisca. The Panna Cotta ($8) with a “salad” of fresh strawberries, mint leaves and hazlenut sprinkles, was exceptional. I especially loved the contrast of fresh mint with the richness of the dish.
However, as good as it was, I’d have to say that the Tiramisu ($8), with gobs of layered mascarpone whipped cream, espresso and cocoa powder was, hands down, the best I’ve ever tasted: the platonic ideal of a Tiramisu and a generous portion, too.
It’s always a surprise to be blown away by dishes so familiar (and normally so tired) that you can’t imagine enjoying them as though they were new taste sensations. But for me, the best dishes at Gradisca were taste revelations and embodied traditional Italian cuisine at its finest.
Gradisca is open seven nights a week (5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday). It offers a six-course Chef’s Tasting Menu for $80, and a large menu which I intend to work my through when I return, probably after taking in a downtown movie at one of my favorite movie houses, nearby. It’s a treasure.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
126 West 13th Street (Between 6th and 7th)