Broccoli is no bombshell. But the other night, it took off its nerd glasses and seduced my party with long, roasted stems and fluffy green heads, crisp under a veil of tempura. There were other dishes at the table, but for a few moments, we only had eyes for these beautiful florets of green and gold, woven through with a sweet-hot aioli, heaped with snowy Grana Padano. It was a cracking start to dinner at Sorella, where chef Emma Hearst has a talent for teasing out the charms of familiar ingredients.
And what that dish ($9) does for broccoli, the acciughe al verde ($10) does for anchovies. Ligurian filets recline on a billow of butter. As if in some fantastic dream, there is also salsa verde, a gravel of hazelnuts, and some crumbled-up egg yolk. You’re invited to compose bites using lovely wafers for which the word “flatbread” does not suffice. Do good anchovies really need all this stuff, all this softened butter? Yes! They do! Sorella is one of those restaurants that celebrates our immense capacity for pleasure. It does not withhold.
Hearst opened Sorella at the tail end of 2008 with her partner, manager Sarah Krathen. The duo met in culinary school, traveled through Piedmont together, and debuted on the Lower East Side with this sleek wine bar serving elegant food inspired by their trip. Since then, they have launched Stellina, a café and gelateria next door, but otherwise kept their focus here. A handful of greatest hits are still on Sorella’s menu years later. (But has the duck-fat muffin with chicken-liver mousse, like its fans, grown bigger?)
The restaurant sits on a grim stretch of Allen Street that smells of leaky garbage bags and traffic fumes. In this sense, it’s a hidden gem: Inside, it’s all whitewashed brick, wooden walls painted with wine, and candlelight. Restaurant years are like dog years, accelerating the aging process so that a place we adored at first is somehow torpid and doddery after a couple of years—but if you want to sit in Sorella’s small back dining room with a ceiling made of glass, instead of at the bar, you still need to make a reservation. At all hours, the room bustles with couples on dates and little groups of friends clinking their glasses.
Hearst cooks out of sight or expedites in the narrow hall, and occasionally pops into the dining room in a grape-colored apron and red lipstick. Talking Italian wine with diners or mixing cocktails, Krathen is behind the bar in the front. She directs a young but competent front-of-house team. Although a few servers seem to lack experience, they make up for it with enthusiasm: “The tongue? Oh, really? Awesome!”
The kitchen is confident and its missteps minor. A whole fried quail ($17) was underseasoned, eclipsed by a complex salad. And no one seems to understand why Sorella makes the gnocchi ($13) so small. The tiny nuggets arrive in a cream sauce of Castelrosso cheese, scattered with soft cubes of pear cooked in brown butter. Against giant batons of chives, they are miniaturized even further, but they are delicious. Good luck eating them one by one.
The classics here tend to shine, but if you’re interested in Hearst’s less polished—and perhaps more exciting—work, you’ll find it in the daily specials, where she plays out of bounds. Recently, there was a rack of seriously spicy, sticky ribs with a lemongrass-dressed nectarine salad and a corn pancake that took my table completely by surprise with its powerful flavors. On another night, I had a fine dish of veal tongue with halved hot peppers and Korean melon. Although it was accompanied by far too much grilled bread, it was an interesting play on sausage and peppers with some real Lower East Side swagger. Like the best of Hearst’s dishes, it unfolded slowly, over a series of bites.
Yarisis Jacobo’s dessert menu offers Italian sweets like a sloppy strawberry-themed plate of doughy cake and ricotta heaving under sweet jam ($9) and a coppa of gelati ($9), which didn’t quite deliver on the exciting flavors its description offered. The bicerin ($8), a soft chocolate pudding topped with espresso fudge and whipped cream, is more elegant. Jacobo’s gelato flavors are outstanding.
Hearst was only 23 when she opened Sorella, and even now she seems to appreciate that people want to come in and pay money for her food—a thank-you note, written in Sharpie, accompanies every check. It’s a gentle reminder that going out to dinner is more than a transaction, more than food and drink in exchange for your money. At Sorella, night after night, there is devotion.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road,at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.