Take the 4 Train to Venice: At Florian, Shelly Fireman Blends Casual Italian With Old World Pampering
All photos by Bradley Hawks for the Village Voice
The hostess seats a group of sharp-dressed businessmen at a plush leather banquette in Florian's (225 Park Avenue South, 212-869-8800) anterior dining room. They're all wearing napkin bibs by the time the waiter arrives with the restaurant's oversize menus. The suits scan the nine-section bill of fare, a golden chandelier wrought into the universal atom symbol shimmering above their heads. The juxtaposition of old and new mimics the establishment itself, which opened in November in a cavernous space on Park Avenue South. Shelly Fireman's latest venture offers greenmarket antipasti and numerous vegetarian options but serves them in a dining room whose gaudy design, done up in hues of emerald green and gold, would drop jaws if it were plopped into the Italy section of Epcot Center's world showcase.
Talmudic menus are a Fireman hallmark, but the prices here are lower than at the restaurateur's ventures — including Bond 45, the Brooklyn Diner, and Cafe Fiorello — uptown in the theater district. Main courses top out at $34 for pounded bone-in veal parmigiana the size of a tennis racquet, whose crunchy exterior forms a basin for scatterings of basil and pools of molten house-made burrata. The cheese, a creamier, silkier cousin of mozzarella, gets its own twelve-seat bar attached to the one that serves the hard stuff. Down the line of bartenders mixing up proprietary "Saint Florians" (a twist on the Aperol spritz), a dedicated curd colonel stretches and shapes the burrata into soft orbs. These are complemented by a tantalizing supporting cast: nutty roasted delicata squash; baby carrots and peas; a take on carbonara with crisp pancetta and a poached egg. Best of all, a generous portion will set you back only $10 or so — a veritable bargain provided you don't opt for the 1980s-vintage "stuffed caprese" presentation, which sees the burrata unceremoniously shoved into a hollowed-out tomato like so many clearance items into a Century 21 bag.
Chef Brando de Oliveira, who started with Fireman in 2001 after working his way up to executive chef at Charlie Palmer's Aureole, now oversees the entirety of the Fireman Hospitality Group. Like his boss, the Italian-born chef has a knack for pleasing people via abundance. Rivaling the parmigiana, a massive osso buco lasagna arrives with a marrow bone as big around as your arm plunked in the middle of herb-rich veal pasta. Shareable and only $24, it's an undeniable steal. There's a lobster pizza, but a better choice is the massive calzone, a Frankenstein's monster stuffed with creamed spinach and artichokes whose outer edge is studded with Roman-style fried artichokes. And an ample tangle of spaghetti in tomato sauce hides among the sides. At $10, it would make for a fine cheap dinner — perfect for inhaling at the bar with a glass of wine. When's the last time you had a $20 dinner in this neighborhood?
Waitstaff parade around with baking trays of cheese puffs and warm chocolate-chip cookies. Spongy focaccia is available gratis. Service is affable, and recommendations for wine by the glass or cocktails — like a selection of bespoke Negronis, using the magical measurements of one-third spirit, one-third fortified wine, and one-third bitters — proved reliable. On your way out, a manager will point you to a tray of send-off sweets, be they rough chunks of dark chocolate or sugar-dusted fritters called chiacchiere. It's a direct and thoughtful approach given the contemporary landscape, where a heavy dose of attitude is too often the spice that overpowers an otherwise good meal.
Fireman has imbued the two dining rooms with enough quirky charm to fill an Italian villa. This stands to reason: He owns one in Tuscany. It also stands to reason, then, that he'd take up sculpting: Florian's floors, tiled with marble from Pietrasanta, are punctuated with the restaurateur's playful, life-size female nudes. One gal holds a bouquet of wine glasses spray-painted gold. Another greets patrons at the entrance, where she presides over a "Selfie Chair," also painted gold. And at the bar, a disembodied buttocks holds a sign proclaiming "Best Seat in the House." (Don't laugh too hard — the happy-hour throngs would appear to agree.)
Desserts are priced to share, meaning no one's likely to leave hungry or unsatisfied. Scoops of vanilla ice cream are prepared to order. They match chocolate mousse in decadence, but the mousse merits a tableside presentation. A towering display showcases the rest of the offerings, like white chocolate almond cake and an unfortunate chocolate pizza with strawberries.
Shelly Fireman's New York reign began innocently enough, with the Hip Bagel, a West Village eatery frequented by Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol in the 1960s. Florian is only his second venture in the borough's lower half — the Bagel is no more — but over the ensuing five decades, he has built a family-run empire that includes restaurants in New York and Maryland, not to mention a Brooklyn Diner in Dubai. As much as everyone acknowledges Danny Meyer's hospitality prowess, Fireman has been coddling volatile city diners since the Shake Shack mogul was a toddler.
He named Florian after a centuries-old coffee shop on the Piazza San Marco in Venice whose patrons have included the likes of Proust, Dickens, and Hemingway. Flooding in the plaza is as ancient as Venice itself, but with sea levels rising and the city slowly sinking, the future of Florian (to say nothing of the Piazza San Marco and Venice) has been cast into doubt. No stranger to longevity — most of his restaurants have lifespans that top twenty years — Fireman may have opened the storied café's stateside successor.
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