The Gramercy Pork Hotel: Maialino
The suckling pig looked like a huge sheet of fried dough, bubbly-topped and golden, with only the tiny ribs emerging from one side reminding you of its animal origin. The roast is presented to the table before it gets ferried back to the kitchen to be sliced and plated with pork-fat–roasted potatoes. It's a simple meal—the only discernible seasonings are salt, pepper, and rosemary—yet it's wonderful, one of the best roast pigs in the city, with lush meat hiding under blowsy white fat and skin so crisp you can hear people crunching it across the room. The rosy flesh is as tender as baby food—actually, it is baby food, made from an infant pig, and it's the namesake dish of Maialino, Danny Meyer's new spot in the Gramercy Park Hotel.
To eat at a Meyer restaurant is to be reminded of how pleasant dining can be when every logistic of service has been worked out. If you are waiting at the bar when your table opens up, there will be no fumbling around to settle the tab. Your glass of wine will be carried to your seat, the bill transferred without a word. There is no pretentious speechifying about the chef, or tedious explanations of the menu. Simply: "Do you have any questions?" Salt and pepper are on the table. The servers are friendly and at ease, yet completely efficient. They do not fawn or hover. Wine glasses are filled when they ought to be, not a moment before. If you can't finish your suckling pig, the leftovers will be wrapped up and spirited away to the coat-check closet, where you can snap it up on the way out. Our doggie bag seemed heavy—inside, we found two Sullivan Street ciabatta loaves, the better to make sandwiches with the leftovers.
When a woman at a nearby table couldn't decide between the lamb chops and the oxtail, her server debated the issue with her before explaining, "The oxtail is like Dinty Moore." The woman gasped in delight and ordered it. On another occasion, a diner requested Sancerre, which isn't on the restaurant's all-Italian wine list, so her server offered a taste of a Soave. You feel like you could ask one of the waitstaff about which subway line to take home, or what color curtains to buy, and they would calmly steer you in the right direction.
These things sound elementary, but you'd be surprised how many expensive restaurants get them wrong. And if you're going to spend $72 on a plate of pork (which, to be fair, feeds three), the experience ought to be comfortable and seamless.
Maialino styles itself as a Roman-style trattoria, with a menu divided into charcuterie, antipasti, primi (first course: pastas), secondi (main course: meat and fish), and contori (vegetable sides). Many of the dishes are simple Roman specialties, like spaghetti alla'Amatriciana and trippa alla trasteverina, braised tripe in the style of Trastevere, a Rome neighborhood. Suckling pig, "maialino" in Italian, shows up in several guises, including a fried-pig-foot salad, and pasta tossed with swabs of the meat and arugula. But the name of the restaurant turns out to be more about the restaurateur than the pig: When Meyer was a 20-year-old working as a tour guide in Rome, his boss affectionately called him "Meyerino." But when the boss noticed how often Meyer ate pork, he changed the nickname to "Maialino"—or "little pig."
Antipasti are mainly stellar, generously portioned and priced ($9–$15). Deeply burnished fried artichokes are similar to the ancient Roman Jewish dish, the small, nutty-tasting vegetables served with a creamy sauce that's like hollandaise spiked with anchovies. For trippa alla trasteverina, executive chef Nick Anderer braises the spongy stomach lining into tender submission, the honeycombed nooks and crannies of the offal sponging up the simple tomato sauce, zested with mint and a salty snow of Pecorino, the sheep's-milk cheese that's more sharp and salty than rich. The menu reaches south to Sicily and west to Sardinia for a salad of bottarga—salt-cured gray mullet roe—which is shaved over greens and celery root, as lemon-yellow as pollen or citrus zest but tasting like the sea smacked you across the face. A gooey soft-boiled egg provides richness.
The pastas ($13–$17) aren't trying to knock your socks off, but they do. I particularly loved tonnarelli cacio e pepe—an ultra-simple dish of square-edged spaghetti with copious grindings of black pepper and Pecorino. The bucatini all'Amatriciana—named after the town of Amatrice, in the same province as Rome—arrives in a neat pile, the hollow bucatini so al dente that the pasta barely curls around a fork. The texture of the pasta acts as a pleasant backdrop for the onion-and-guanciale tomato sauce, elevated by vinegar and chilies. Then there's the malfatti al maialino, fluttery squares of egg pasta with arugula and a generous portion of braised suckling pig leg, brightened with a vibrant, lemony sauce. Anderer has a knack for balancing rich, heavy ingredients with light, acidic flavors, keeping fatty monotony at bay.
If you wish to split a pasta course, the kitchen will portion it into two separate bowls, saving you from dragging bucatini all over the table. This is a good idea if you are aiming for both the traditional multi-course meal and some semblance of affordability—share an antipasta, split a pasta, and still have room and dollars left for a secondi.
Good choices for a secondi include that amazing suckling pig and a comforting braised lamb neck in Frascati wine and rosemary. But some of the secondi come up against the same challenge as they do at Marea: The antipasti and pastas are hard acts to follow. The braised oxtails, a trio of them lined up in a tart tomato sauce, were slightly oversalted and underwhelming in their one-notedness.
Still, this restaurant is worth your time for many reasons. Although it's possible, even easy, to spend a lot of money at Maialino, a big tab is not inevitable—choose carefully (pastas are good values) and share courses. There are also quartinos of wine—that's a quarter of a liter, most priced $10 to $16—for those who want more than a glass but don't want to shell out for a bottle. Maialino is thoughtful like that.
For more of our restaurant coverage, check out our food blog at Fork in the Road
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