Ever since Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone began rehabilitating chicken Parm and Neapolitan cookies around 2010, I’ve been waiting for other restaurants to carry the torch of Italian-American food boldly into the future. This is a major branch of American cuisine, too important for its fate to be left to the Olive Garden.
For the most part, though, the torch has gone uncarried. I have been told that Palizzi Social Club, in Philadelphia, may qualify, but because Palizzi is a veritable club — members and guests only, no new applications accepted — I don’t expect to eat there before the nation’s tricentennial.
Then in October, a place opened in the West Village that seemed to hit all the right tropes. It’s called Don Angie. Two chefs share the kitchen — Angela Rito and her husband, Scott Tacinelli — and they make versions of chicken scarpariello, antipasto salad and braciole.
The dining room brings back the high-glitz Italian restaurant décor of the 1970s and ’80s, the period when Formica and oil paintings of the Bay of Naples went out and mirrors with gold pinstripes came in. The floor is a black-and-white checkerboard. The bar is made of polished marble the color of beef carpaccio. There is a house Chianti, and it comes in a straw-covered bottle. There is hope for a red-sauce renaissance, after all.
Unfortunately, more or less from the day it opened, having dinner at Don Angie has been only marginally less difficult than eating at a private club. That has something to do with Ms. Rito’s and Mr. Tacinelli’s knack for cooking things that Instagram can’t resist. The two spent three years running the kitchen at Quality Italian in Midtown, where they engineered, among other pieces of shutterbait, a chicken Parm that looked like a pizza. There was some wonderful stuff at Quality Italian and some less wonderful stuff, and almost all of it either arrived on trolleys or was prepared at tableside or set on fire while you watched.
The restaurant group behind Quality Italian, Quality Branded, is also backing Don Angie. So as I resigned myself to eating at Don Angie close to 5:30 p.m., when I managed to get an unreserved table, I also braced for a dose of abracadabra.
It arrived right on schedule with my first drink, which a server strained into a glass through a coffee filter cone lined with espresso ice. It was called Americano, Americano, and combined at least three meanings of the word: a highball, an Italian aperitif wine and a diluted shot of espresso. The Americano highball, so simple that just about any bartender can make it, doesn’t need much improvement.
But I have to admit that the coffee did give it some ballast. I’m also happy to report that this was one of the last bits of stagecraft I saw at Don Angie. Ms. Rito and Mr. Tacinelli have a few tricks up their sleeves, but they save them for the kitchen. The result is food that is creative in a more interesting and more consistently successful way than it was at Quality Italian.
And it arrives at the table without the aid of trolleys. When you get a Caesar salad, the server doesn’t whip together the dressing on the spot. It’s been done in the kitchen, where the chefs replaced romaine with tender chrysanthemum leaves that taste like some newly discovered herb. (The feathery leaves firmly grip the dressing and the fluffy rasped cheese, too.)
I can’t remember seeing chrysanthemum in an Italian restaurant before, and it shows the chefs’ skill for cross-pollinating with other cuisines, especially Asian ones. While the Torrisi-Carbone axis is generally faithful to Italian-American standards, using more expensive ingredients and more modern techniques but leaving the basic ideas intact, the Rito-Tacinelli approach is more radical.
They trample on tradition when they feel like it. Prosciutto and honeydew melon are tossed with candied hazelnuts and mint leaves in a lime, tamarind and fish-sauce dressing. This very good salad, which obviously glances toward Southeast Asia, is a smart way to handle an antipasto standby that is usually pointless except when melons are in season.
Their garlic bread turns out to be a very thin disc with garlic chives and melted cheese inside and sesame seeds on top. Lightweight, salty and irresistible, it’s modeled on Ligurian focaccia di recco, but it may also bring to mind Turkish gozleme, Azeri kutab or even a Chinese scallion pancake.
There’s China again, in the pepperoni fried rice served under barbecued squid. Ignore the squid unless you like it leathery, and just focus on the rice, stirring it with labneh when the heat starts to rise.
The dish everybody has seen on Instagram is the pasta called caramelle. In Italian it means caramel, as in candy, but the shape will remind most Americans of an elongated Tootsie Roll, with twists at either end of a drum that’s filled with buffalo ricotta. Cameras come out because the dough is striped, with black sesame-flour bands alternating with ordinary egg pasta. The sesame barely registers; the fun of the dish is the sauce, a peppered, pickled cantaloupe that tastes like it’s still percolating.
But the dish that could be Don Angie’s lasting contribution to the pasta sciences is the garganelli with meatball ragù. The central problem of red-sauce restaurants is this: Pasta and meatballs are always served together, but they remain stubbornly separate. Ms. Rito and Mr. Tacinelli have found a way out of this conundrum by crushing meatballs into a tomato-guanciale ragù. It’s not quite as simple as I’ve made it sound, but you don’t know that when you’re eating it; you just think you’re magically eating meatballs and pasta at the same time.
They’ve also tried to salvage chicken scarpariello, a dish that is almost always overcooked. Their solution is to make a kind of pie with chicken meat pressed down into a kind of crust made of sausage. The flavors are accurate, and for once it’s not dry, but it’s not as engaging as other main courses, like the veal cutlet with speck and pickled mustard seeds, or the grilled fillet of orata next to herbed fregola, with buttermilk as the sauce.
Reworking tiramisù almost never improves it, but as a change of pace I did like how the one at Don Angie shifted the emphasis from espresso to bittersweet cocoa. There’s a delicious, if more conventional, plate of tender, light zeppole with tangy whipped robiola under an Andy Warhol mop of spun sugar that people go wild for.
I was charmed by a smaller, quieter dessert: a mochi cake stuffed with fior di latte ice cream, with sea salt and a fragrant scribble of olive oil. It’s like eating a mozzarella ball that wanted to become a dessert when it grew up, and did.
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