Thompson Street at the region’s western edges is a bit far from the bustling, tourist-packed area of Soho in New York. It is home to San Carlo Osteria Piemonte, one of the finer small Italian restaurants of Manhattan, one that is, in the words of Michelin, worth a detour. The name Osteria literally means a neighborhood restaurant where the owner is host to his guests. It also connotes fine food, and a limited menu.
Modeled after the small restaurants of Turin and surrounding areas of the Piedmont, San Carlo captures the ambience of a casual family osteria with sleek contemporary elegance. A brass bull, the Piedmontese symbol for good luck, engraved on the sidewalk, greets visitors as they approach the front door. A representation of the Piazza San Carlo in Turin, the original capital of modern Italy, dominates the interior. The Piazza gives the restaurant its name.
The restaurant was founded by a group of friends, each with ties to the Piedmont, and designed to create a greater acceptance of the food and wine from that region. Focusing on the cuisine of wine country of northern Italy, chef Riccardo Zebro has put a modern face on traditional dishes. Zebro says he is inspired by the recipes of the grandmothers in the scattered and isolated villages of the Piedmont. Our waiter described those villages as reminders of an historical past when every grandmother spoke a different dialect and created their own versions of age-old sauces.
Chef Zebro, who has cooked in Liguria and Milan, puts a modern touch on familiar specialties like vitello tonnato, risotto with Castelmagno cheese and hazelnuts, and a fritto misto alla Piemontese that emphasizes meat. The menu incorporates tender beef, (sourced from grass-fed certified Piedmontese cattle) cream-based sauces and truffle-blessed dishes, as well as the nebbiolo-based wines that made the area famous, Barolo and Barbaresco. It’s an appetite-inducing menu that includes zucchini blossoms stuffed with fresh mozzarella; beef tartare with quail egg and Meyer lemon foam; pan-seared scallops with sun choke puree, toasted hazelnuts and guanciale; house-made agnolotti filled with braised meat; and veal Milanese with arugula, cherry tomatoes, and roasted potatoes.
We started by sharing the vitello tonnato, cold, thinly sliced veal drizzled with a tuna sauce and capers, and moved on to pan-seared scallops, seared to the perfect degree where their saline origin showed best, dressed with broccoli rabe and a smattering of crisp leek.
Next came a revelation, a richly flavored polenta of buckwheat and corn flour topped by slow cooked egg and embellished with small slices of black truffle, a dish I hope to enjoy again at a future date. That same wish for a second helping came after a memorable serving of chestnut stuffed gnocchi and porcini mushrooms plated with a Parmesan fondue. The finale in our parade of refined favorites was Chef Zebro’s take on ravioli -- minuscule meat-filled blini floating in a bolitto misto broth. The broth alone was just fine, and the light as a pillow ravioli were a new taste sensation. The memory of that combination stays with me.
The evening climaxed with a clean fresh tasting tiramisu and a traditional Piedmontese pudding, bunet, a savory combination of chocolate, egg, and caramel, heightened by a dash of amoretto. Both are familiar dishes in Northern Italy, but both show the creative handiwork of chef Zebro.
San Carlo Osteria Piemonte
90 Thompson Street, NYC
Hours: 11:30 to 11:30 Sunday to Saturday
Telephone 212 265 1212
Photos: Courtesy of San Carlo Osteria Piemonte