A bowl of thin spaghetti arrived, the strands tossed with garlic, olive oil, chili peppers and sautéed anchovies and topped with shreds of bottarga, a pressed fish roe from Calabria, Sicily.
“I tell my customers: Take a bite, then a sip of cold white wine and breathe out through your teeth,” said Attilio Fragna, one of Maratti’s owners. “You will really smell the sea.”
My husband had ordered the dish and he took the first mouthful. He looked a bit dubious at first. “It’s very salty,” he said. Then he had a few more mouthfuls. “But it’s wonderful! I feel I should be eating this on a beach.”
At Maratti, bottarga, which is made from the dried roe of mullet or tuna, is not only shredded onto pasta, it is also spread on crostini to go with a spicy tartare of tuna and salmon and marinated cucumber. These are just a few of the remarkable dishes on the menu at this restaurant, which opened exactly a year ago on the Upper East Side. Maratti did not blast onto the scene like Babbo in the Village or Colina on the Upper East Side (which fizzled and quickly closed). It’s been a sleeper that has quietly built its own following of customers.
Perhaps it was the aroma of truffles I smelled when I first walked in, but there was something about Maratti that appealed to me right from the start. The restaurant is on East 62nd Street on two floors of a 100-year-old town house that, according to Mr. Fragna, was a private club at the turn of the century. (It even boasts a disused swimming pool underneath the kitchen.) The ground floor, where you can smoke, is saloonlike, with low ceilings, a handful of tables and a long, wide mahogany bar displaying generous platters of breadsticks and green and black olives from Sicily. Upstairs, two elegant rooms on the parlor floor have high ceilings and working fireplaces. One room is for private parties, and the other seats about 70 people, with three enormous windows giving onto the street. The walls are painted pale yellow with a cream trim and hung in a desultory fashion with small paintings of swirling landscapes in pastel colors, placed so they miss the light (which is perhaps just as well) that shines up from behind blue glass shades. Tables are set with white cloths, votive candles in blue glass holders and red tulips, and Italian beachside pop music plays at a discreet level in the background. You don’t sense the hand of any hot new designer, and the effect is oddly charming.
Customers here are hard to pin down. “It’s certainly not the Swifty’s crowd,” commented a friend as we looked around the room. Rather behind the times, he had gone there for lunch earlier in the day expecting Nell Campbell’s Kiosk and instead found the sort of people who used to flock to Mortimer’s, complete with black velvet headbands and pinstripe suits.
There were one or two pinstripe suits at Maratti, but the restaurant doesn’t feel as though it’s on the Upper East Side. It feels like a place in Rome, which is where Mr. Fragna, who is the manager, and his brother Alessandro, the executive chef, were born. Their parents owned restaurants and instead of hiring baby sitters, took the children with them to work. “We were raised in the restaurants, and when we were kids the chefs would amuse us by cutting vegetables into funny shapes.”
Maratti’s wine list was put together by Mr. Fragna and his sommelier Davide Pinzolo who spent two months last year looking for small and less-well-known producers, with the result that they have many unfamiliar but excellent wines at low prices. Our charming young waiter, a Hungarian who bore an unsettling resemblance to Andre Agassi, was extremely helpful in recommending cheaper wines to go with the food, which is mainly fish.
We began with a plate of fried calamari. When D.H. Lawrence visited Italy, he didn’t reckon much to calamari-”fried ink pots,” he called them, “tougher than india rubber, gristly through and through.” Not so at Maratti, where the rings, accompanied by a heap of whitebait, were crisp yet tender, sprinkled with fresh thyme. Fresh sardines were also delicious, voluptuous and silvery on a bed of arugula and tomato. Maryland lump crab cakes the size of a half-dollar, nicely crunchy yet moist within, came with mâche salad, corn and a spicy aïoli. But the outstanding dish was the shrimp and potato napoleon, with a vinaigrette of onion and bacon confit, a fanciful version of the best potato latkes you’ve ever had.
Romans do great things with artichokes, and a first course of shaved baby artichokes sautéed with parmesan cheese into a lemony hash was an unusual and delicious way to begin dinner. But one of the most original dishes at Maratti-and one I’d never had before-was a salad made with roasted chestnuts that had been glazed with a little sugar, diced butternut squash, baby greens and shaved Parmesan, a lovely interplay of textures and tastes.
Pasta includes delicate pillows of ravioli filled with a creamy mix of asparagus, black truffles and ricotta cheese in a butter and sage sauce and an outstanding risotto with mixed seafood in a subtle tomato sauce that brought out the distinctive flavors of the shellfish.
Since Maratti is essentially a seafood restaurant, one of its signature dishes is a whole boned sea bass that is filled with slices of black truffle, lemon and parsley, and baked in bread dough. The fish steams inside the dough so the flesh is soft and moist, and when the dough is cracked open in front of you it releases a wonderful aroma. Alas, it was overcooked. Whole roasted sea bream would also have been phenomenal had it been less cooked, and both dishes were served with great crispy, roasted potatoes and delicious spinach. But a fillet of pan-roasted wild striped bass was perfect, served with a reduction of shallots in barolo wine, spinach and a mound of mashed potatoes garnished with little fried carrots. It was simple and gorgeous.
If you prefer meat, there is Florentine rib eye with Tuscan fries, pan-seared veal chop, or baby Australian lamb chops. The latter were tender and juicy, served with a Sicilian-inspired melange of artichokes, potatoes, black olives and tomato fricassee.
Apart from a napoleon of lemon and passion fruit, desserts were a bit of a letdown, tending to be overly sweet and on the heavy side. Cassata, Sicilian ice cream, was served with the traditional candied fruits sprinkled around it instead of inside, and was covered with chocolate sauce. I found it cloying. I liked the light crème brûlée with Limoncello liqueur, but the chocolate soufflé was leaden and the panna cotta very sweet.
At the end of dinner, one of my female friends rather self-consciously asked our waiter if she could have a cup of hot water with lemon (she’s convinced this cleanses the blood after a big meal) and she apologized for the odd request.
“Not at all,” he replied. “We serve a lot of that.”
“You do?” she was incredulous. “Why?”
He remained unfazed. “Many of our customers are women.”
135 East 62nd Street
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Italian, from small vineyards, well-priced
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses lunch $14 to $26, dinner $16.50 to $29.50
Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to 3 P.M.
Dinner: Daily 5:30 P.M. to 11 P.M.
* * Very good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No star: Poor