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The dining room of John McDonald’s Sessanta (60 Thompson Street; 212-219-8119) in the Sixty Soho hotel looks like it could have been plucked straight from 1960s Italy. Leaning toward glam, the décor features vertical-striped maple walls, vintage-style wood framed chairs, orb light fixtures, and plush azure couches and seating. The fare at Sessanta is a bit more rustic, focusing on authentic coastal Southern Italian cuisine, with a strong emphasis on Sicily.
However, the restaurant goes way beyond red sauce and sausage and peppers. Flavors and ingredients from across the world are incorporated into the menu: couscous and figs from Africa, tomatoes from the New World, seafood from the Mediterranean, spices and dried fruits from the Middle East. “It’s an interesting cuisine, because culturally there are influences from most of the global empires from the past 3,000 years,” says chef Jordan Frosolone. “People don’t really think about that.”
Frosolone has a diverse culinary background. He’s spent time in the kitchens of Bouley and Hearth in New York, and worked in Umbria and Tuscany, but Southern Italian is his passion. One pair of his grandparents were from Naples and the others grew up in a small Sicilian town 60 miles outside of Palermo. For the past ten years, Frosolone’s been visiting friends in his ancestral homeland and has become fascinated by the food and the culture, reading and studying it extensively; using the restaurant to tell the story of this food has become a dream come true for him.
First courses include charred mackerel with grapefruit, castelvetrano olives, and mugolio pine syrup ($18) and marinated calamari ($16), a bright and slightly garlicky mix of celery, parsley, and puffed black rice.
Salads, vegetables, and grains feature a mix of popular American produce and rarer Italian varieties ranging from baby kale and romaine salad with beets, radish, pecorino romano, and croutons ($14) to sorghum “risotto style” with peas, garlic, and oregano. “Sorghum is abundant in Southern Italy and not many people are using it,” says Frosolone. “We cooked it in the style of risotto or farrotto. It’s very humble in its roots, simple and straightforward.”
Entrées feature meat and seafood like roasted branzino with herb and spring vegetable salad and meyer lemon ($29) as well as lamb loin accompanied by fava beans, provola cheese, and cacao ($34). To share, there’s a roasted chicken with caponata ($57) and a whole roasted fish finished with wine, olive oil, onions, herbs, lemons, and olives (market price).
The pasta selection offers time-honored recipes such as stroncatura spaghetti with anchovy, neonata (a spicy Italian fish sauce), and chiles ($19), based on a 150- to 200-year-old technique from Calabrian women who cleaned the flour mills at the end of the day. They’d sweep up the leftover flour from the floor, take it home, blend it together, and make their own pasta with five to six different types of flour. Frosolone’s interpretation includes a mix of rye, semolina, buckwheat, and carob.
The timballo di Zanghi ($41) — a riff on the classic Sicilian dish typically found at birthday parties and other family get-togethers — has thin strips of eggplant encasing a bowl-shaped mound of sauce, seasonal ingredients, and ring-shaped anelletti pasta. The whole thing is baked and sliced for serving. While there are variations of timballo found throughout Italy, Frosolone’s rendition, with a pork sausage ragù, is indicative of Palermo. And it’s close to his heart; he named it after his daughter, who loved the ring-shaped macaroni as a baby. “She’d put them on her little fingers and that’s all she’d eat for the first year and a half of her life,” says Frosolone. “We knew we wanted to do a baked pasta and we didn’t want to do something common.” Although timballo is not widely known in the States, it played a part in the 1996 film Big Night, during a scene that features a similar dish called timpano.
Sicilian street food is another atypical feature on the menu, inspired by the foods found at vegetable and fish markets on the island. Arancini (fried risotto balls) are served with prosciutto cotto and pistachio ($10). Frosolone’s take on stigghiola, typically lamb intestine wrapped around green onion, swaps out the offal for lamb belly, which is set atop grilled green onion with a slice of lemon on the side ($10).
Sessanta offers a wide selection of Italian wines by the quartino (quarter liter) and the bottle, ranging from Mazzolino chardonnay from Piedmont ($18 quartino) to Sicilian nero d’avola by Valle dell’Acate ($16 quartino). Aperitifs and cocktails have an Italian slant; there’s a Sardinia 75 ($15) with kiwi, kirsch, lemon, and prosecco; a Vitelloni ($14); a lighter, fizzy negroni with Kappa pisco, Aperol, grapefruit bitters, and tonic. Similar to a boulevardier, the Seraphim ($13) mixes bourbon with bitter notes of green chartreuse, which is balanced by vanilla bean and smoked cinnamon.
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