A Great, Cheap Wine List Is Only One of Fiore's Many Charms
"This place is so girly," exclaimed Mary, an East Village artist originally from Ohio, noting the wallpaper printed in a juvenile pattern and the display of serving plates, lunch boxes, and other kitchen paraphernalia on shelves near the ceiling. Also surrounding us were 19th-century prints of pliéing ballerinas, though the rest of the room—which narrows as it goes deeper, culminating in a small garden—sports the kind of nondescript, bare-bricks décor you find in most Williamsburg restaurants.
We were sitting at a sturdy table in the front of Fiore ("flower" in Italian), a recent addition to the percolating Grand Street restaurant strip. In common with many modern Italian restaurants trying to please everyone, the expansive menu takes a very long time to read, offering a bewildering number of ways to put a meal together. It includes regional favorites from all over Italy and a bulging wine, cocktail, and beer list. However, the first thing you'll note as you sit waiting to order is that the prices are very reasonable, and the portions passing by are large enough to choke a horse.
Luckily, the food is often excellent. Pastas are the heart of the menu, and most are priced at $9 and totally shareable, especially if you want to get a couple of apps or collaborate on a single secondo. Lasagne Bolognese is the authentic article, a few sheets of wobbly noodle sprawled across the plate, pleasantly mired in a sauce mixing tomato, cheese, and hunks of ground meat, flamed to crustiness under the salamander. Even better are the homemade spinach-and-cheese raviolis, with a wrapper rolled so thin and delicate that it might be mistaken for lingerie. The sauce of butter and fresh sage makes you wish there were lots more of it to sop up with the semolina bread provided.
The egg-yolky penne carbonara and the bucatini amatriciana (from the tiny Laszio town of Amatrice) deserve "very good" ratings, too, though the linguine alle vongole renounces its Italian-American roots by being smothered in too many clams still in their shells. But why complain about such abundance? Treat the top layer as an excellent appetizer of shellfish steamed in garlic and parsley, and then munch the remaining pasta as your second course.
Equal in excellence to the pastas are the appetizers, which are big enough that two make a substantial meal. You can't go wrong with a beet salad ($6) that has been smothered in shaved cheese and hosed with tart vinaigrette. The usual platters of cured meats and cheese are available, but why not head for my favorite thing on the menu? Possibly inspired by a similar squid dish at Babbo, polipetti brasati ($6) are baby octopi braised to within an inch of their tiny lives in a tomato sauce golden with olive oil. Eating the cephalopods is ecstasy, and I genuflect before chef Roberto Aita for taking a big chance by putting this unusual stew on the menu.
Spreading itself (as well as the dough) very thin, the menu offers wood-oven pizzas, of which my fave is the pie that flaunts two cheeses shotgunned with black peppercorns ($10). There's also an expansive list of sides that could stand alone as appetizers, including some amazing French fries flavored with crisp sage leaves. There are no better fries in town. Unfortunately, many of the secondi come with lifeless oven-roasted potatoes, so you may want to cough up the extra $3 and enjoy the fries instead.
Which brings us to the secondi. Though many of the mains have been done in the wood oven, which is good, many are cooked ahead of time and rewarmed, which is not good. Our roasted half chicken ($13) was full of flavor but sadly dry, while an order of baby back ribs on a bed of Sicilian caponata had a reheated taste and sodden texture. Too bad! Accordingly, I'd advise dining mainly on antipasti, primi, and sides.
But the positive aspects of Fiore vastly outweigh its picayune defects. Oenophiles will flock to the restaurant for the wine list, which boasts meritorious obscure bottles at extremely modest mark-ups. Fiore wants you to drink great wine, rather than the overpriced swill that many Italian restaurants pour. A slew of bottles happily falls in the $20 to $30 price range; among them, you'll find a decent Chianti, a good Rosso Conero, and a spectacular Montefalco Rosso that I'd never seen in any wine store—from the Umbrian vineyard Madonna Alta (probably named after the Virgin rather than the Pop Star), this complex and saturated red will set your teeth on edge.
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