Nothing’s more food-porny than gnudi (“nudies”). Also known as ravioli malfatti (“badly made ravioli”), these naked lumps of cheesy filling arrive without a noodle covering, a classic Florentine recipe that predates the introduction of pasta to Italy. Gnudi were first introduced to the West Village—some time after the first appearance of pasta there—by the Spotted Pig. But now the Lower East Side has struck back. Falai, a splendid new restaurant on Clinton Street, offers gnudi fashioned from tender poached baby spinach and the sweetest, most mouth-filling ricotta you’ve ever tasted. Six to a plate, slicked with sage butter and topped with a mortarboard of pecorino that makes them look like graduates of the dumpling academy, Falai’s gnudi ($14) will leave you with lips glistening and a sensuous feeling in the pit of your stomach.
Named after its Florentine owner, Falai occupies a former retail store with a big display window, and the decorative theme is poetic and relentless whiteness. White lace lines the window, in which a raised table has been placed. The walls and tin ceilings are painted white, and white doilies, which look like they might have come from the party goods store that was previously in this space, are used as place mats. The courtyard, which promises to be a warm-weather asset, is also unstintingly white. An exception is the black pillbox skullcaps worn by the cooks, who preside in the open kitchen, giving them a scholarly, medieval air. But while most of the new trattorias downtown strive for absolute authenticity in their Italian recipes, Falai strives to be refreshingly innovative, and succeeds.
The principle might be called the “one discordant ingredient theory.” It involves taking timeworn recipes and goosing them with an unexpected ingredient. Thus thick slices of pork loin ($17), done to a perfect pink, are sided with pureed potatoes and flavored with fennel. But wait a minute. What’s that phantom flavor? Cocoa nibs! These tiny brown morsels, a step in the chocolate-making process, add savor to the meat, but no sweetness, and remind us that when chocolate first appeared in Italy, it was used in gravies. The farro salad illustrates the same principle, taking the ancient Roman grain, mixing it with shaved artichokes, and dressing it with olive oil. The discordant element here is cumin, a spice virtually impossible to find in the Italian peninsula. The seeds add an earthy flavor that perfectly complements the nuttiness of the grain.
In fact, I found almost no misfires on the menu in three visits. The homemade papardelle with wild boar ragu ($15)—the innovative element here is fresh green peas in the pasta, adding a note of vernal sweetness —competes with any I’ve tasted in Italy. And there is no better compact Italian wine list in town, with some bargains scattered throughout. My fave is an Apulian selection, Torre Quarto’s Bottacia ($27). Made exclusively from the obscure uva di troia grape, the wine garnered an impressive two glasses (of three possible) in the Slow Food wine guide. Though now considered native to northern Apulia, the grape is thought to have originated in ancient Troy, hence the name, and its usual fate is being blended in wines and masked by other grapes. Bottacia is a chance to taste the pure grape in its flinty, fruity, and musky magnificence.