***It’s a long & winding ride! Hold tight!***
As I admitted in Part 1, my genuine belief in the ever-restless, ever-curious Chowhound ethos notwithstanding, the Director & I tend to like to be where we are while on vacation. So long as we’re comfortable, if somewhere else is better, bully for it, we don’t really care.
Since our hotel was at W. 39th & 9th, where we often were in Manhattan was Hell’s Kitchen. And since we had such a charming experience at the 1st place we stopped, not an hour after we’d arrived in town & all of half a block from our lodgings, for a drink & a couple of appetizers (1 of which, the crudo di seppie, became last week’s Dish of the Week), we decided to return that same night for digestivi & a couple of nights later for the works.
Apparently known until recently as Osteria Gelsi, Il Punto occupies a welcoming if not particularly assuming storefront on 9th Ave.—snug space, dark woods, white tablecloths, the usual. And while the bar was no more unusual with its decorative scattering of magnums of Rosso di Montalcino & half-bottles of Amarone & such, the large assortment of liquori & amari behind the bar is precisely the sort of hallmark of East Coast Italian dining that I hope to encounter more often here in Denver, sooner rather than later.
Bellying up upon arrival, we couldn’t help but make the too-easy comparison between our ponytailed, thick-accented waiter & Furio from The Sopranos. Should’ve gotten his name—quick to smile & banter (though not to interrupt), he was a pleasure throughout our 2 rounds of drinks & the aforementioned appetizers, the other of which was the equally simple, almost as good pulpo su bruschetta,
literally “octopus on bruschetta” but obviously more like a salad with tenderly meaty coins of grilled tentacle, frisée, black olivers, capers & caperberries, red onion & tomato, ringed by a few crostini. If the presentation wasn’t exactly polished & the toasts a bit too hard on the teeth, the octopus mixture itself was bright & lively, drizzled in lemon juice cut with just a few drops of moistening olive oil.
Settling up to explore a bit more before dinner, I couldn’t figure out quite what was wrong with the bill until we hit the street—Furio had only charged us for 1 round of drinks. Mistake? Gracious gesture? It was partly to find out that we headed back for a nightcap—only to have him pour us, explicitly this time, yet another round on the house.
And 48 hours later, when our waitress was taking our drink order, he waved to our table & smiled, pointing to the bottle of Oban the Director favored as if to say, “I’ve got you covered.” Oh, that Furio. He sure was, for lack of the Italian equivalent, a real mensch.
As, for lack of a female equivalent, was the waitress—though it was she who asked me if I understood, when I ordered the piselle con seppie for an appetizer, that seppie was baby squid, throwing me all off track; as I explained in the aforelinked Dish of the Week post, I actually understand it to be cuttlefish.
What it definitely was was delicious, so dilemma solved—unless, that is, you consider the disturbing fact that a baby cuttlefish appears to be the cutest freaking thing on earth.
Good thing they didn’t look like that in my bowl of pea soup. Actually, my bowl of pea soup didn’t look like a bowl of pea soup, at least not the creamy split standard:
Instead, every spoonful of the wonderful broth was redolent with the greenness of fresh peas & herbs, perfectly light on the notes of chicken, salt & pepper. It was one of those rare dishes that exudes such wholesomeness you feel as though you should be eating it in the sunny kitchen nook of a rustic farmhouse amid rolling hills a century ago, with a glass of buttermilk.
Which made it the ideal yin to the yang that followed.
The timballo (yeah, yeah, like Big Night) is the house specialty—& with obvious reason. If the crust of the drum-shaped (hence the name) dish looked a little dark to me, it proved just right, its toasty crunch a striking contrast to the melting interior—5 or 6 alternating layers of ribbon pasta, besciamella (did you know the Italians, not the French, invented béchamel? True story) & meat ragù (I’d guess a typical mix of beef, pork & veal) as well as parmesan.
My own educated feeling is that timballi constitute the rare occasion in which all expectations for al dente pasta are misplaced. Here, the noodles naturally become one with their sauces, to the most comforting, chewy-slurpy effect imaginable. But to say they become one with the rest is not to say they disappear into it; on the contrary, the beauty of Il Punto’s version was that neither the rich white nor the perfectly balanced red sauce—in which the meat enhanced rather than dominated the tomato—took up more than their share of mouthspace relative to the pasta.
By unfortunate contrast, the dipping sauce with the Director’s calamari fritti was too thin to properly coat the breading; with any staying power, its nice little red pepper kick might have overcome the deficiencies of the bland, overdone squid rings.
He had somewhat better luck with the strozzapreti al sugo di cinghiale.
Strozzapreti means “priest strangler,” & while Wikipedia cites a few apocryphal explanations for the name, I could swear I learned in cooking school that it derived from the pasta’s resemblance to a clerical collar (from the hole end, you can kinda see it). In any case, classic wild boar ragù often has an agrodolce (sweet & sour—although the literal translation is “soursweet”) savor, & this one was no exception; nice as it was, too bad the ratio of pasta to sauce wasn’t ideal. It’s true that Italians, unlike Americans, don’t positively deluge their pasta, but this seemed a bit stingy.
Overall, though, Il Punto’s a lovely little place “where the Kitchen Aromas swirl into the dinning room like an Italian culunary tale,” to quote the misspelling-riddled website, that probably suffers from comparisons to famed Esca nearby, though it’s 10 times more accessible.
The same goes for Stecchino, another mostly likeable Italian eatery in Hell’s Kitchen. In fact, its menu was so appealing I could overlook my thorough contempt for its wishful billing as “An Italian Speakeasy.” First of all, the whole trend toward speakeasies annoys me in the same way the gastropub trend annoyed the Westword’s much-missed Jason Sheehan. Technically, a speakeasy is a place where alcohol is illegally sold, so if you’re calling your joint a speakeasy, you’d better be able to literally transport me back to the Prohibition era the moment I walk in, or I ain’t buying it. But second, even by the extended contemporary definition that includes bars like PDT whose entrances are supposedly secret, Stecchino, with a perfectly well-marked & accessible storefront on a major avenue, doesn’t qualify in the least. If it’s a speakeasy, so is every other alcohol vendor on the block. The word becomes meaningless in that context.
But as a bar & restaurant, Stecchino (which means “toothpick”) has a number of things going for it, from rather rococo craft cocktails to a repertoire I’d have liked to sample more thoroughly: chicken liver & wild mushroom crostini, calamari with squid ink–chili butter, pork braciola—a new-to-me variant on the usual beef—etc. As it was, a trio of pastas went down nicely.
A ramekin of green peppercorn crème fraîche distinguished this appetizer of 3 pan-fried mezzalune stuffed with lamb shank; not only did the combo of lamb & sour dairy offer some Near Eastern flair, but it turned what would otherwise be eaten with a fork into a fun finger food. (Granted, I can turn anything into a fun finger food given enough wine, but still.)
Had I been in a less laidback mood, the fact that it arrived simultaneously with our main courses would have rankled, but that was the only glitch in the otherwise smooth service. Mostly smooth, too, were the entrees themselves. Though the inclusion of soppressata in the rabbit & black olive ragù that topped the Director’s fresh pappardelle was what intrigued me most about the dish on paper, it strangely didn’t really register on the palate; still, with herbed ricotta smeared in, the dish as a whole had enough rustic heartiness to go around.
By contrast, it was the use of prosciutto butter as a sauce for my Swiss chard, crescenza & walnut ravioli that got me all excited, but in fact rendered the whole a little too salty. Were the chef to ease up on any extra salt in the recipe, he/she would have a truly stellar dish; the earthy, nutty & creamy combo, enhanced by the perfectly textured pasta, was otherwise bold.
Much appreciated were the little touches too—a dark crusted sourdough, a hot buttered rum made for me by special request, though it wasn’t on the drink list.
In world’s most competitive market, Stecchino may not have that something special, that brio, that je ne sais quoi it needs to survive. But it’ll be pleasant enough while it lasts.
Not having been there since I was a but a tot, I got this bug in my ear to drag the Director to the world-famous Grand Central Oyster Bar. Pal Ben warned me it was a tourist mill—& it is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a kick, from its celebrated vaulted ceiling on down.
Actually, there’s much on the enormous, daily-changing menu to admire; scattered among the usual raw bar, fresh catch & deep-fried suspects are some surprisingly funky offerings—pan-fried bay scallops with raisin–blue cheese butter & pecans, for instance, or
broiled Pipe’s Cove oysters with candied ginger butter (even if it tasted more like herb butter).
In fact we ordered up a storm, the best of it being the marinated Dutch herring with mustard-dill dressing.
If “marinated” here was a bit of a euphemism for “pickled,” it was a fair one, in so far as these wonderfully oily fish were only lightly sweet & sour; the mustard-dill sauce, too, was on the mildly sweet side, & while I’m all for cheek-slapping pungency, the gentle treatment made for a memorable departure from the norm.
The Idaho brook trout with horseradish cream was likewise smoked softly enough to maintain its freshwater character & remain about as delicate as smoked fish can be. And hey, how ’bout these presentations, eh? Curly parsley garnish, lettuce leaf,
tumbler full of horseradish with a plastic spoon,
paper cups for the cocktail sauce & mignonette, lemon wedges willy nilly. Classic. To be fair, raw sea urchin in the shell truly is a sight to behold (wacked-out close-up here), & a treat to poke around in, like your own little edible tidepool. It’s something I’m still learning to appreciate with my mouth, with its tonguelike texture & musty taste, but I am learning, and my eyes can never get enough of that handsome space devil.
Our luck ran out in Round 2, though, as I asked the waiter whether he recommended the fried whole clams or the fried scallops, knowing that he’d vote for the twice-as-expensive latter. He did, & they were a total drag, barely a cut above freezer fare (& the fries weren’t even that much).
Still, it wouldn’t have been a complete experience without at least one ripoff. Here’s to ya, old joint.