The idea had been to have dinner, plain and simple.
No thinking about writing about the dishes as we're eating. No scribbling of notes. No blogging. This was a celebration, after all. There should be no room at the table for work of any sort.
But the moment our food started arriving, the game plan changed. Ciano, the much-anticipated new restaurant by Shea Gallante (who greatly impressed critics and diners at the now-shuttered Cru, where he earned three stars from The New York Times' Frank Bruni), pretty much had me at shrimp balls.
From my first nibble of rock shrimp polpette ($8 for five), the deliciously warm one-inch balls stuffed with big chunks of shrimp, I was hooked. Out came the paper and pen and off we were …
Unlike the general feel of some New York restaurants today, which can dabble much too much in a cold, too-chic-for-you decor and sexy, slightly sinister darkness, Ciano is a welcome difference. A general warmth envelops you the moment you step in — the waitstaff is friendly, smiling even! The lighting is rosy and the smell of wood and rosemary is everywhere. Desperately, you hope that the scent lingers in your hair and just never leaves.
At the restaurant, named after a village in Tuscany, Gallante has even installed a hearth oven in the center of the dining room, where bread is baked, adding to the smells. The menu, however, is not anchored in Tuscany, Gallante has told the Times. “It will also be ingredient driven,” Mr. Gallante said then. “But I’m not out to save the world, just cook dinner.”
And cook it he does.
The little plates will charm you. Besides the polpette, the arancini ($6 for 4) are a must. The tiny bites come hot — so nibble carefully — and the pockets of creamy rice within are divine. And did I mention that the bread is a compulsory? It's lovely enough on its own but the truffled butter served with it must not be missed.
Under antipasti, the scallops are perfectly seared and just underdone enough on the inside and lovely with hazelnuts, brussel sprouts and Hubbard squash mostarda ($18). The housemade potato gnocchi with black truffle butter, 36-month old parmigiano with rosemary and balsamic butter ($21 for an appetizer portion; $28 for entree) is about as decadent as it sounds.
And the marinated sea bream with blood orange, Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil and fresh celery heart leaf ($14) was refreshing and lovely.
But the true star — the dish that will have you waking up the next morning craving it like a drug — is the roasted veal meatballs ($18) served on a bed of creamy white polenta and truffle pecorino.
The flavor of these is intense, packed with umami and a distinct richness that makes you wonder and then immediately not want to know how much fat is in these balls. And the falling-apart tenderness of the meat makes it practically melt on your tongue. The moment I bit into these, I knew I'd be coming back to Ciano again before too long.
The entrees did not disappoint — a nicely done steamed orata came on a bed of fall vegetables and swimming in a tomato-olive oil broth ($32) and the roasted grassfed Angus rib-eye for two ($57) was delicious. The beef was flavorful and done just as we asked (medium, slightly rare) and while it was great all on its own, it was wonderful paired with bites of potato-taleggio puree and braised cavolo nero, a Tuscan kale.
As tempting as the desserts were, it turned out that the husband had arranged a little surprise.
This cake disappeared so quickly I can't tell you much beyond the fact that it was moussey, chocolatey, had a dacquoise (crunchy hazelnut bottom layer), and was absolutely scrumptious. And for the icing, pastry chef Bjoern Boettcher — who was also at Cru — came out to say hello to the birthday girl. A very nice touch.
Birthdays can be tricky. But if one does have to keep on having these dastardly things, the best one can hope for is a memorable meal to mark it.
At Ciano, I'd say this was a pretty good year.
Ciano, 45 East 22nd Street, 212.982.8422, www.cianonyc.com