“It’s all about the quality of the tomatoes and oil,” says owner/chef Luigi Iasilli, who presides over his home-style Italian restaurant as though it were, well, his home. Which in a way it is since many of this authentic trattoria’s Southern Italian dishes are original family recipes recreated for our pleasure at Iasilli’s two downtown restaurants, one in the East Village, where I recently dined, and the other, a more upscale version, on Duane Street (Between Greenwich and Hudson) in Tribeca.
Iasilli, from Potenza, a village southeast of Naples, emigrated to New York City 14 years ago and opened Max 11 years ago. (The restaurant’s name was inspired by a monthly Italian lifestyle magazine, Max, which focused on the U.S. and inspired his move to New York).
Iasilli is fanatic about the quality of his ingredients. ”Seventy percent of my menu is tomato sauce, which is why I use only imported organic tomatoes and imported organic oil from Tuscany.” Like an enthusiastic host, whose informality and lack of pretention are refreshing, he bounds to the kitchen and proudly places his key ingredients on the table for us to inspect.
Max’s bread is from Il Forno; his pasta is Cecco; his Mozzarella di Bufala arrives by plane from Italy every Tuesday; and his wines are from small Italian vineyards. But it’s not just the ingredients that make a difference. It’s the recipes and their execution.
To begin, try his Crostino Toscano, a rich chicken liver pate on toast or perhaps his melt-in-your-mouth Mozzarella di Bufala. Then dive right into one of the house pastas. What’s most impressive about Max’s pasta dishes – aside from their amazingly low prices — are their lightness and delicacy. As one raised on Southern Italian cooking, I can tell from my first dip into Max’s Salsetta (his complimentary sauce of roasted fresh tomatoes, olives, garlic, lemon and orange peel), that his tomato-based dishes are well seasoned and remarkably refined. I detect cloves, nutmeg and anchovies in his outstanding meat Lasagna. And in his Melanzane a Funghetto (diced, fried eggplant in tomato sauce with basil), the tender eggplant melts in my mouth. For those who don’t eat meat, there is plenty to choose from, including a Lobster Ravioli with a spicy tomato sauce that has a real kick.
The menu is not just focused on red sauce. Many of Max’s dishes are northern Italian, redolent of butter and cream. In fact, of all the restaurant’s specialties, my favorite, hands down, is that evening’s “ravioli of the day:” Ravioli di Porcini in Crema Tartufata. The truffle cream sauce over mounds of delectable minced porcini mushrooms stuffed into two large-sized ravioli is sheer heaven.
Check on the blackboard for a daily list of Max’s Specials.
In the Entrée category, I heartily recommend the Filetto de Baccala, a Southern Mediterranean staple. In Iasilli’s hands, a filet of pan-seared cod is wrapped around whipped potatoes with truffle oil, which adds up to a dish that is remarkably delicate and subtle. It goes well with an Italian Pino Bianco.
All this refinement is quite unexpected in a modestly priced rustic trattoria that looks as though it could be a run-of-the-mill neighborhood joint. In short, Max is a find, as many others have already noticed. No wonder Lady Gaga has called Max her favorite Italian restaurant, and upper East Siders trek downtown for its top-notch food.
Max is known for its generous portions and amazing value. Nowhere is this more evident than in its Polpettone E Mamma (an oval bomb of meatloaf whose ingredients include beef, eggs, prosciutto and mozzarella drenched in tomato sauce) with a side of Potato Pancetta Gratin and a salad. For $13.95, this is a trencherman’s delight.
Italian desserts are not my favorite – and who has any room left? But I loved Max’s very French Crème Brule, and my dinner companions happily devoured his Tiramisu and Panna Cotta. Another alternative is finishing the meal with a lovely Italian dessert wine, La Caudrina’s Moscata d’Asti.
Max’s vibe is casual, it’s interior rustic. Three candlelit rooms hold about 60 diners and, when the weather is mild, 50 more can be accommodated in an outside patio. It’s a place to bring your family and friends, where you don’t have to dress up and, by your second visit, Luigi will know your name.
51 Avenue B (Between 3rd and 4th Streets)
Price Range: Dinner Entrees: $9.95 to $14.95: Cash Only
Dinner: 5- 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday
5 p.m. to Midnight, Friday and Saturday