Yes – Italian Scottish.
And as odd as that sounds, If you allow yourself to be initially guided in your menu choices by Paolo Montana (owner-chef) and his vivacious wife, Adriana Moretti, both proud Italian Scots, you will love this restaurant, tucked away on West 18th Street in the trendy Flatiron district.
At first glance, the restaurant’s menu looks like that of a conventional Italian bistro in New York. But as the name “Incognito” suggests, hiding in plain sight are a number of surprises, particularly in the menu’s “Scottish Corner, “ which offered some – though not all – the culinary highlights of the evening.
Incognito’s salads and meatballs may be great – all on the menu at reasonable prices — but none of them were on the press dinner’s Tasting Menu. Instead, Chef Montana organized for us a parade of dishes, some of which were excellent versions of familiar Italian specialties, while others were highly imaginative – and refined — versions of Scottish dishes that, on my own, I would never have ordered.
We began with an excellent, extra dry Prosecco: a good choice on a hot, muggy night. It went well with Incognito’s delicious Roman-style Fennel & Mushroom Pizza ($17). The mushrooms were meaty, as I like them, and the crust thin but not transparent. As good as it was, what followed was great – a meltingly soft dish of Braised Octopus ($14) in a fabulous anchovy, caper, olives, black beans and spicy tomato sauce. Listed on the menu as a “starter,” I could happily make a meal of it.
An intoxicating whiff of truffle essence heralded the entrance of another “starter,” the delicate and light Beef Carpaccio ($14), paired with a soft Dama Montepulciano from D’Abruzzo. I enjoyed them both.
But I was knocked out by the soup of the day, Tuscan Bread Soup ($8). As with his Braised Octopus, Chef Paolo elevated a fairly common and often tired dish into something special: a dense mélange of roasted plum tomatoes and bread swimming in an assertive, green Greek olive oil that Montana favors.
The undisputed highlight of the evening, however, was the ethereal slice of Highland Haggis ($12) – normally a heavy, pudding-like mix of oats, suet, sheep’s heart, liver and lungs stuffed into the animal’s stomach – transformed into a light, layered gateau of lamb sausage, turnips and creamed potatoes floating in a fabulous whisky jus sauce straight out of the most refined French cuisine. Stunning. The only negative was that there wasn’t enough of it. I look forward to coming back and ordering it again.
By the time the pasta morsels arrived, I was slowing down. But the chef continued to produce amazing dishes that proved irresistible. Each of the three pastas, for example, captured the essence of their genre. If you wanted rich and smooth, the butternut squash Ravioli with green peas, swimming in a sublime mascarpone sauce ($13) was perfect. If you wanted spicy, the Piccante Penne ($13) in a chili-inflected marinara sauce with sweet sausage was excellent. But for me the hands-down favorite was the Risotto of the day ($14), whose key ingredient, smoked (Afumicato) cheese ($14), elevated and transformed his risotto into something quite unique.
Next came two outstanding dishes from the “Scottish Corner.” First, the impeccably pan roasted Isle of Skye Scallops (with its red roe, rarely served in this country), bathed in a delicious dill-fennel Beurre Blanc sauce($14). Second, the tender Ayrshire Pork, accompanied by a side dish of black pudding from Stornoway (in the Scottish Highlands) and apple compot, bathed in a grain mustard sauce ($26). I particularly enjoyed the complementary and complex tastes of the pork dish. They worked perfectly.
Left to my own devices I would skip dessert but that would be a grave mistake because Paolo Montana is also an accomplished Pastry Chef. My favorite was his rich Chocolate Torte, more like a slab of chocolate fudge, with caramel sauce. (I love the yin and yang of sweet chocolate and slightly salty caramel.) But the Cranachan – a Scottish confection of mascarpone cream, meringue, toasted oats and wild berry compot ran a close second.
Chef Montana does not hide in his kitchen. Given his outgoing personality and dry Scottish humor, he loves recommending the night’s options, and mingling with diners, many of whom are devotees of his food who have followed him from his previous perch at Da Umberto. He and his wife have created a friendly, smoothly operating family-like team.
This casually elegant restaurant is quiet, spacious, with high ceilings, a long, comfortable bar and private party room that seats 40. Incognito is open for lunch and dinner from 11:30 AM to 11 PM every day except Sunday. There are Prix Fixe Lunch and Pre-Theatre Dinner Menus, and a Happy Hour that stretches from 11:30 AM to 10:30 PM, Monday through Friday (Saturday from 4 PM to 11PM).
Paolo and Adriana take their Italian-Scottish heritage seriously. They’ve brought the first official Italian Tartan plaid to the U.S. – there’s a genuine specimen on the wall – and, of course, the restaurant celebrates Robert Burns Night. For those who love Scotch whiskey (and who doesn’t), and Italian food with a Scottish flair, this will be the place to be.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
30 West 18th Street (Between 5th & 6th)