Le Zie (“The Aunts”) is a trattoria that opened just over a year ago in Chelsea. It’s just a few blocks north of Le Madri (“The Mothers”). The two restaurants have no connection, but as befits its more northern location, Le Zie’s food is Venetian as opposed to Tuscan. This branch of the mythical family is more casual, less flashy and cheaper but, for a restaurant so small, the food is among the most creative I’ve had in a while.
Venetian food has gotten a bad rap. Jan Morris, who lived in Venice for more than a year, called the cooking there the dullest in Europe and wrote that after trying about 30 restaurants she would not feel “intolerably misused if denied re-entry to any of them. Once upon a time the cucina Veneziana was considered the finest in the world, specializing in wild boar, peacock, venison, elaborate salads and architectural pastries. Even then, though, some perfectionists thought it was spoiled by an excessive use of Oriental spices: Aretino, the poet-wastrel, used to say that Venetians ‘did not know how to eat or drink,’ and another commentator reported caustically that ‘the pride of Venetian cookery was the hard biscuit, which was particularly resistant to the nibblings of weevils (some left in Crete in 1669 were still edible in 1821).’ ”
I, however, feel considerably more charitable toward the city, since it was in Venice that I tasted my first white truffle (after my companion had grumpily piled the shavings to the side of his plate: “Awful! It tastes like dried beef!”). But among the glories of Venetian cooking are pasta e fagioli soup, calf’s liver with polenta, black ink risotto and other wonderful seafood dishes. I can’t imagine that Ms. Morris, who cherished an affection for the modest eating houses which sent you home “reeking of prawns and lasagna,” would not like the food at Le Zie. It’s straightforward, serious and good.
Le Zie has become a favorite among the artists and art dealers of Chelsea, but it’s not one of those trendy over-designed restaurants with a velvet rope in front of the door, even though at 10:30 on a weeknight people are still coming in for dinner. It’s a friendly, self-effacing place; if you have to wait for a table, they might bring you a drink outside, where there’s even a bench for two lucky people to sit down. You could almost be in a back alley in Venice, by one of those funky neighborhood spots away from the tourists.
The restaurant is owned by Claudio Bonotto, the host in the dining room, and Francesco Antonucci, the chef at Remi in midtown. The small room has gold-beige walls decorated with stencils, pale blue light sconces, beige corduroy banquettes and tables set with brown paper on white cloths under an undulating dropped ceiling. The back of the dining room is dominated by a giant blue Plexiglas wave.
“That’s what is known as a ‘dunker,’ ” said a friend who lives in Australia. “The only way to survive a wave like that is by diving down to the bottom and lying on the sand.” A metaphor for life, I guess. One of the drawbacks of Le Zie when it’s full is that it is incredibly noisy. The other drawback is the infuriatingly endless list of specials. Our waiter, a sweet, doe-eyed young man from Argentina, reeled them off from memory like a schoolboy called upon to recite his lesson to the class, and the list went on and on and on. After several antipasti and pasta dishes, he kept going with fish and then chicken and then meat, and afterwards no one could remember a thing he’d said. In this age of computers, it would take five minutes to print the list and hand it out with the menus.
Because we had to wait for our table, the kitchen sent out some salads, a pleasant Caesar salad and a plate of tomatoes and arugula with feta cheese. Crusty bread was set down along with a bowl of olive oil swimming with black olives, fat cloves of garlic and sprigs of herbs. We ordered a bottle of Venetian Valpolicella and things began to look up.
There is, not surprisingly for a Venetian restaurant, a great deal of seafood at Le Zie, prepared by chef Roberto Passon. (Ms. Morris marvelously describes the fish in the Venice market as “lying aghast upon their fresh green biers.”) The shrimp cakes are excellent and the crunchy fried calamari, served in a basket on brown paper, were as good as if they had been cooked on the shores of the Adriatic. Tender chunks of octopus are sautéed with celery, potatoes and tomatoes.
You can also begin with a Friulian speciality, mashed potatoes and Parmesan cheese fried in a golden pancake with brussels sprouts (in England we call this “bubble and squeak”) and served on a bed of cooked radicchio and mushrooms. The Venetian bean soup, swirled with a fruity olive oil and laced with pasta, was superb, as were the whole baby artichokes with black olives (they were supposed to be spicy, but they weren’t).
For a main course, a cooked fish arrived in a parchment bag; it looked like a whale. The waiter cut it open and revealed a snowy dorado with tomato and black olives. Striped bass was also very good, with a zestful sauce of olives, onions and tomatoes. The squid ink risotto was uncompromising in its shiny blackness (it turns your teeth black so you wind up looking like a kid who just ate a bar of chocolate). It was delicious, but so rich that I couldn’t eat it all, and the waiter kept coming out with a look of concern on his face to check my progress.
Mr. Passon also turns out superior pasta dishes, among them a rigatoni with a sauce of ground veal and rosemary, splendid black tagliatelle tossed with mussels and clams, as well as (the menu boasts) the “best spaghetti and meatballs in New York,” as voted by the New York Press . The latter was fine, but could have used more meatballs. Lamb shank, falling off the bone and served with roasted potatoes and mushrooms, was exceptional. Also good was the pink, tender calf’s liver with onions and creamy polenta.
“It’s suddenly quieter,” someone said after we had been concentrating on our main courses for a while. There was a pause. “I guess it’s just because we stopped talking.”
“Only four dessert specials!” said the waiter cheerfully when he came to clear the plates. Desserts weren’t as good as the rest of the food. They included a perfectly pleasant apple tart with crunchy crust, a fine crème brûlée and a so-so molten chocolate cake.
After dinner we walked out to Seventh Avenue and from the street we could see a piece of the Empire State Building all lit up. “That makes me feel good,” said one of my friends. “But perhaps it was the nice dinner.”
“Perhaps because it’s so quiet,” said someone else.
172 Seventh Avenue near 20th Street
Dress: Very casual
Noise level: High
Wine list: Good selection of Italian wines at reasonable prices
Credit cards: None accepted
Price range: Main courses $9.95 to $14.95; three-course prix fixe lunch $12.95
Lunch: Noon to 3:30 p.m.
Dinner: 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor