Shea Gallante, that fancy chef who once served salmon hidden under a cloak of horseradish foam, has decided it’s time to sell beans, meatballs and lasagna.
Gallante used to work at Cru, a stodgy bastion for wine geeks. He moved on to Bouley, where I experienced a series of excellent, albeit very extended three-hour lunches and four-hour dinners at romantic banquettes.
So I was surprised to find that Ciano isn’t just another excellent restaurant with Italian food. Someday, it might even rival Babbo, Marea or Ai Fiori. It’s already attracting crowds.
Those beans! Giant legumes surround a sweet-and-sour stick of pork rib. Eat it with your hands.
Those meatballs! Globes of tender (and humanely raised) veal sit atop a mound of polenta.
That lasagna! Is there a better one in the city?
The firm noodles are just cooked through enough to absorb the basil pesto and meaty white Bolognese. This is the romantic, rustic, grandmotherly side of Gallante, who trained under Lidia Bastianich, a matriarch of regional Italian cooking in America.
The front room looks like any other Gramercy Park trattoria, though the crowded bar is more civilized than usual. You can converse at reasonable decibels.
Gone are amuse-bouches, petits fours, intermezzos and the absurdly alcoholic Bouley-style wines-by-the-glass pairings. Beverage director John Slover sells almost every bottle by the half, allowing for judicious imbibing.
Junior investment bankers will find it an ideal second date restaurant, complete with dining room fireplace. Corner banquettes are strictly for closers.
Leave vegetarians at home -- all but one pasta has meat or fish. While eggplant ravioli sounds healthy, the filling is enriched with housemade lardo. Gallante dissolves smoky nduja (spreadable sausage) into the sauce below. The perfectly porky dish tastes nothing like eggplant.
Boneless lamb chops balance musk with meatiness; a puree of dates, garlic and red wine tames a gargantuan veal loin. Even raw tuna is larded with bone marrow and topped with caviar.
Ciano caters to refined carnivores. There’s no steak on the menu; rather, the most expensive dish is chicken for two ($49). The delicate preparation involves steaming the bird in a clay pot. The two skinless breasts are far from boring, infused with an obscenely nutty alfalfa hay.
This is the complicated, fussy side of Ciano, where Gallante’s French training comes through in all its obsessive-compulsive glory.
He takes sea bream, and rather than just adding salt, mixes trout roe for a hint of brine, blood orange for sweetness and celery heart leaf for bitterness. Saffron aioli makes the whole thing taste like bouillabaisse. No flavor is overwhelmed.
Ciano isn’t perfect. Many will prefer the quieter atmosphere of Ai Fiori or Alto. Conservative types will argue a fine-dining chef shouldn’t be making haute riffs on red sauce classics like lobster fra diavolo -- Gallante’s version is too sweet, too chewy. Never mind.
Finish with an apple Napoleon and welcome to the neighborhood what may be Manhattan’s next great Italian joint.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Pastas under $20; Entrees under $40; $90 tastings.
Sound Level: Around 70-75; Never too loud.
Date Place: There’s a fireplace.
Inside Tip: Killer rock shrimp poplette.
Special Feature: Great grilled focaccia that’s gently blackened by the hearth.
Will I be back: Often.
Ciano is at 45 East 22nd St. Information: +1-212-982-8422 or http://cianonyc.com/.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)