Descend a few steps into Mozzarella e Vino and it feels as if you’ve entered a small ristorante on a back street in Rome. But no, you’re in midtown Manhattan, just opposite the Museum of modern Art and close to the multiple attractions of the theater district, Radio City and Rockefeller Center.
Mozzarella e Vino (MeV) is the younger sibling of Gattopardo, a more upscale restaurant which once occupied this sub-sidewalk space but now resides in grander quarters on the same block. True to its name, MeV emphasizes fine Italian cheeses, most of which arrive by air twice a week from Italy.
The restaurant occupies a long, narrow space on the first level of the former townhouse. Mirrored walls and indirect lighting enhance the ambiance and the room widens toward the rear to overlook a rarity in the city of choc-a-bloc buildings and towering skyscrapers, a glass enclosed yard. Given the opportunity, this is the most desirable place to dine.
There is much to like about the casual but full service restaurant, the variety, freshness, and quality of its food of course, the location and its prices, which are surprisingly reasonable for a neighborhood where deluxe dining is the norm. That true Italian homemade atmosphere extends to the menu. The breadsticks are peppery, brittle, and fresh, the olive oil arrives from Partanna in southwest Sicily, and the buffalo mozzarella, the house specialty, originates at a family farm in Puglia. Ravioli, lasagna, and many varieties of pasta are prepared fresh on premises daily. The wine list, though limited and a bit pricey, offers choices from all regions of Italy.
Someday I’ll return to try more of the appetiti and formaggi plate which comes in a tangle of formats offering mortadella con pistachio from Bologna, prosciutto from Parma, Friuli, and Emilia-Romagna, along with salami and cold cuts. We did sample Pecorino Toscano, a creamy sheep’s milk cheese with firm texture and sharp taste as well as buffalo cacocavallo, a rustic and earthy buffalo cheese.
I took a cue from our knowledgeable waiter and started with buffalo gnocchi. The mozzarella, in a light, almost transparent casing, was delicious and fresh as if it had been made just a few moments before gracing my plate. We also tried a small plate of calamari fritti (fried) which I feared might be tough, as they too often are, but these were light and tender, butter soft and I wished I had chosen a full portion. Meatballs are the true test of an Italian restaurant and that Italian specialty here rated four stars. It was a savory combo of beef, veal, and a bit of pork, dressed with a bright but unobtrusive tomato sauce.
Too often chefs get carried away, loading on a wild palate of flavors and colors, spices and condiments, patchkeed up as my wife might say. Chef Vito Gnazzo, a top-rated kitchen commander, takes a straight forward approach emphasizing great ingredients and brings out the special tastes of southern Italy with occasional forays to the sardines and spices of Sardinia, without stepping on the inherent quality of his natural materials. His minimalist technique is a delight in a time when pink vodka-sauced spaghetti and mini-forests appear on so many plates.
I went for a basic main dish, slow braised lamb shank, as tender as one could ever wish, bathed in a red wine and vegetable sauce, demanding to be sopped up with crusty Italian bread, paired with remarkably good mashed potatoes. Gnozzo has a special touch with potatoes. On another occasion, recently, I asked him how he achieved his special texture and taste when preparing potatoes and he replied: “it only took me ten years to learn.”
There’s a small but tantalizing lineup of desserts, including tiramisu, chocolate and almond cake, fruit tart and gelati. We opted for the rich chocolate and almond cake with pistachio gelato, and a blueberry fruit tart nestled on vanilla custard. What could have been better, we mused. And then our waiter brought out a selection of cookies to be enjoyed with complementary dessert wine. A lush cappocino capped a dining experience we plan to repeat.
Photos: Courtesy of Mozzarella e Vino