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The muti-fish tutto crudo was a sort of crunchy raw fish salad.
Three years ago I published a long-winded account of a taping of Iron Chef America that I’d witnessed a year earlier. It featured chef Fortunato Nicotra of Lidia Bastianich’s restaurant Felidia in a battle against Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto of Morimoto. I believed that Nicotra should have won the contest, though the judges decided in favor of Morimoto.
The olive-oil tasting, from (left to right): Sicily, Tuscany, Apulia
Indeed, Nicotra’s dishes — which included fish-mousse crostini, raw fish crudo served on a warmed cedar plank, seared kanpachi with fennel salad in yellow-tomato vinaigrette, and a roasted kanpachi tail served on a thick tile of pink Himalayan salt with a bottle of single-estate virgin olive oil — were clearly more interesting than Morimoto’s.
I totally took it on the chin from most of the Iron Chef-loving commentators, including a hilarious piece of hate mail from Ted Allen that I may someday publish, but my impression that the challenger’s food was fabulous lingered with me. Last Friday I had the opportunity to taste Nicotra’s cooking, rather than just look at it.
The place appears much the same as when I last went six or seven years ago, before Nicotra was appointed chef. Felidia is situated in a 19th-century townhouse, with three dining rooms, two on the ground floor and one on a sort of second-floor balcony. The rooms are lit by sconces of orange art glass, conferring a warmth on the rooms. In the middle of the second floor, where my pal and I sat, is a prep area with what looks to be a rubber tree in the middle, where waiters and the maître d’ scurry around finishing pastas. That table gives you a clue as to how important noodles are in the scheme of things at Felidia.
Around 8 p.m., the place was thronged with staid Upper East Siders in relatively formal attire, many there for birthdays or anniversaries, or reunions of college students and their parents. The compulsory first course is tutto crudo, a round plate arranged like a Jackson Pollock canvas with slivers of raw fish in profusion dancing around each other and colliding. The substantial serving included some sort of white translucent fish, bright red tuna (which, the menu assures us, is not bluefin), and some smoked salmon. What appeared to be toasted, blackened rice was strewn around, adding a welcome crunch.
Underpinning it was some very fine olive oil, and the dish was unforgettable. We had been enjoying a tasting of three olive oils with our basket of bread (including a unique walnut focaccia). These saucers of oil represented the output of Sicily, Apulia, and Tuscany. The Sicilian oil was our favorite. It had the advantage of being “green oil” (newly pressed), and had a verdant pungency that went right up our noses.
The fegatini (chicken liver) app under the orange light of the sconces
The waiter obligingly divided the pappardelle into two servings, and this is one of them.
The chicken-liver appetizer was dope, too. Poised in oblong heaps between thin parabolas of toasted raisin bread, it constituted velvet puree of liver interrupted by unbroken lobes of liver and sliced mushrooms, with a slight alcohol flavor that may have owed to a shot of brandy or liqueur.
The place is pricey. Recommended strategy is to order two apps, a pasta, and a secondo, and have the meal served in two courses. I ordered one of the cheapest wines on the list, a Bastianich sauvignon blanc (2010), trusting that the family that owned the restaurant wouldn’t put a dud wine on its own menu. I was right, because the way the grape expresses itself in Fruili is a paragon of breezy subtlety. Also, if you’ve dined in Italy, you probably know it’s always good form to order the wine made by your host at any countryside osteria. Felidia is very much like a real Italian osteria somewhere out in the sticks.
Indeed, the wine bolstered the flavor of our pappardelle with duck and porcini ragu. Mushrooms appear not only in the sauce, but in the pasta dough as well, tinting the brawny noodles deep brown. The secondo we ordered was titled simply manzo (“beef”). It consisted of a few medium-rare slices of flatiron steak riding atop a boxcar of boneless beef rib shining with sauce. Quite a nice juxtaposition, though the white beans underneath were a bit more al dente than I would have liked.
We finished up the meal with a double espresso and a pair of apricot-preserve palacinke, the dessert crepes of the Balkans. Surmounted by a small scoop of sour cream, and sprinkled with pistachio brittle, they reminded us of the Bastianich family’s Istrian roots. Tooth-shaped Istria, at the top of the Adriatic, once belonged to Italy but now is part of Croatia.
We came away overstuffed, $210 poorer, and with the impression that Felidia is really one of the best Italian restaurants in the city. Walking by the kitchen on the way out, we were surprised to see Nicotra himself working the line. Now, that’s a dedicated chef.
The Istrian conclusion to a near-perfect meal