Flatiron’s Ciano shuttered abruptly last spring, leaving its 22nd Street space dark just two and a half years after it had opened. But the team wasted no time in relocating: Owner Stratis Morfogen — who also founded Chinese spot Phillipe Chow and was raised in a restaurant family — decided to move his concept to the Upper East Side, where he’s lived for more than two decades, and he teamed up with nightlife veteran Unik Ernest, who owned and operated Bijoux and Merkato 55, to build out Cucina Ciano (121 East 78th Street, 646-422-7550).
The restaurant just opened to the public last night, but the duo already has ambitious plans.
“Shea [Gallante] was a great chef, and Ciano was a very well-received restaurant,” says Morfogen. “But we knew we had work to do on the space, and we would have had to be out in another year,” he explains of the April shutter.
Around that time, the landlords of the 78th Street building asked if Morfogen might consider opening another Ciano uptown, and he decided to move instead, making some changes at the same time. “I wanted to bring it back to the original concept: great food and a casual atmosphere,” he says. “The old Ciano was more of special events space. People can eat at this Ciano every day.”
That was important, he says, because that’s what the Upper East Side was looking for. “Upper East Siders don’t go below 57th or over to the West Side,” he says. “It was a very big challenge to bring friends to 22nd Street. I’m getting to see all these people I didn’t see at the old Ciano because of location.”
He paired up with Ernest, who he’s been friends with for 20 years, because “we both bring pretty interesting dynamics to the partnership,” Morfogen says. “I can’t do what he does, and vice versa.” Ernest brought his nightlife experience to the lounge area, a dynamic part of the space that will play “everything from Frank Sinatra to Bob Marley to Carole King to the Beatles,” says Morfogen. But make no mistake, says Ernest, “It’s not going to be a club.”
The duo enlisted Morfogen’s wife Filipa Fino, who’s been responsible for the decor at all of his restaurants, to build out the room, and she installed goldenrod-hued leather tufted banquettes, an amber-colored wood bartop and stools, light wooden tables, and dark wooden chairs in a room framed by white and exposed brick walls. The private dining room below — which Ciano will rent out for up to 18 people — is darker and more intimate, channeling a wine cellar with dark wood paneling and armchairs.
That wine cellar, by the way, will be donated to charities every Sunday and Monday night, and groups will be treated to a five-course prix fixe plus an open bar, a $10,000 value that the partners hope will help foster a sense of community.
Sadly, Gallante didn’t make the leap from downtown to uptown, but Morfogen and Ernest brought on Tin Huynh, who’s rolling out a menu of Italian comfort food that preserves some of the classics (like the meatballs and duck ragu) but introduces more approachable fare as well. Morfogen cites a veal chop parmesan and chicken meatballs by way of example.
A drink program highlight did survive the jump: the half-bottle wine program. “We’ll have a blackboard list every night with eight to 10 bottles in the $30 to $100 range, and we’ll have three prices and three options for them: by-the-glass, half-bottle, or full-bottle,” Morfogen explains. That allows the restaurant to split rare bottles between tables as well as rotate inventory, putting unique selections on the list for one night only. Cucina Ciano will also pour cocktails; examples include the ginger snap — a blend of cachaca, ginger liqueur, basil leaves, and apple juice — and the Frangelico float, which pits the hazelnut-flavored liqueur against creme de cacao, ice cream, milk, and chocolate syrup.
The ultimate goal at Cucina Ciano, though, goes beyond this restaurant: Morfogen and Ernest would like to expand into multiple locations, bringing this brand of Italian restaurant to many different neighborhoods. “It’ll be very controlled and very hand-held by the both of us,” Morfogen says. He cites the Upper West Side and downtown as possible next locations.
Cucina Ciano is open for dinner daily at 5 p.m.; the restaurant will launch brunch and lunch in about two weeks.
Hit the next page for a few photos.