The Empire’s Down for the Count, But Roman Cuisine Is Still Standing
A shabby block just off Seventh Avenue between the garment and theater districts is not where you’d expect to discover the cuisine of ancient Rome. But when you walk through the front door of Culinaria, you are immediately reminded of those chic, austere restaurants that are tucked away on narrow streets around the Piazza del Campo serving wonderful food.
Culinaria has that aura of restrained, understated good taste that’s particular to the Italians. An elegant, long black bar has been installed in the restaurant, which has a ceiling two stories high and ivory walls hung with giant mirrors and two enormous Renaissance tapestries depicting the Trojan War. Burlington fabrics, which was the previous tenant of the space, has left as its legacy a polished brown-and-beige tile floor dating from the 1920′s that would look right at home in a centuries-old building in Rome. Rows of halogen bulbs (each one wired slightly differently) cast a soft glow over the dining room in the back, which is set with black banquettes and tables with white cloths. There is more seating upstairs on the mezzanine, where not long ago you could pick up a bargain in silk or brocade if you were lucky.
The minute I sat down, the young chef and owner, Vincenzo Pezzilli, popped out of the kitchen like a jack-in-the-box, sporting a toque that was almost as tall as he is. A native of Rome with Southern Italian heritage, he previously worked at Coco Pazzo, Mad 28 and Osteria al Doge in New York. At Culinaria, which opened just two months ago, he is serving what he calls “modern ancient cuisine,” with many of the dishes on the menu inspired by the first-century Roman gourmet Apicius.
For peacock brains, lamprey roe and flamingo tongues, there is no substitute. Nonetheless-mercifully-the busboy set down a tray of modern hors d’oeuvres sent from the kitchen: croutons topped with truffle paste, carpaccio of salmon, and bocconcini of fresh buffalo mozzarella with balsamic vinegar and basil oil-all gifts from the chef that you can nibble on while you look at the menu. Mr. Pezzilli is very fond of carpaccio, which he says was invented in 1963 by the venerable Harry Cipriani, who dedicated the dish to the memory of the painter. Cipriani used raw beef. At Culinaria, you begin instead with thin slices of seared swordfish marinated in black sambuca, which gives it a rich anise flavor, and topped with exotic micro-greens, including popcorn shoots and baby cress. Octopus is marinated in white wine and herbs (with a handful of corks to make it soft) and sliced like salami in very thin strips, marinated and served with frisée and baby arugula. Lobster carpaccio comes with micro-greens and a blood-orange dressing with orange pieces and capers. They are all delicious. I like them better than the sautéed sea scallops, which were stuffed with a roulade of porcini and spinach mousse and served over a sauce made with prosecco and truffle oil. The idea was interesting, but the flavors were pallid.
The seasonings of the ancient Romans were anything but pallid, however. They were very fond of a powerful fermented fish sauce called liquamen, which was made with fish, such as anchovy or mackerel, fermented in the sun for as long as a year and a half (a brew not so far removed from the fish sauces of Asia, or even Worcestershire sauce). It’s commonly thought they used this sauce-which must have been ferocious-to mask the taste of spoiled food. But most Romans suffered from lead poisoning (which some even say led to the fall of the empire). They ingested the lead from the water that ran through lead pipes, from the linings of their cooking pots and from the powder women used on their faces. It even contaminated the wine, since the coarser ones were simmered with sweet grape syrup in lead-lined pots to improve the taste. So they went to great lengths to create dishes that would stimulate their appetites and kill the taste of lead in their mouths. One of Apicius’ great culinary triumphs was wild boar alla Diane, named after the huntress of mythology and seasoned, of course, with the dreaded liquamen. Mr. Pezzilli uses suckling pig instead of wild boar, which he coats with a much less lethal concoction that’s loosely based on the original recipe, using white wine, honey, garlic, anchovies and lemon. It’s a wonderful dish: The meat is delicate and juicy, and comes with crackling fronds of skin and garlicky spinach.
Another ancient Roman specialty on the menu is more of a challenge: lamb baked with eggs. The meat is first roasted, then stewed and, finally, baked in a casserole with beaten eggs, spinach, garlic and raisins. The waiter spoons it out of the dish in one piece, like a baked custard. It’s interesting, although the lamb is a little dry. I’m glad I tried it, but I don’t think I want it again. The roast duck, on the other hand, was excellent: It is first seared to make the skin crisp before it’s flambéed with grappa and served with juniper berries, sunchokes and enoki mushrooms.
They must go through a lot of cans of anchovies at Culinaria. (Anchovy haters should know that the taste of the fish is transformed completely when cooked-it’s unrecognizable.) Bucatini, hollow strands of spaghetti, comes tossed in a sauce made with anchovies, garlic, raisins, toasted fennel seed, pine nuts and bread crumbs. Sardines are traditionally used in this dish, but Mr. Pezzilli substitutes fresh fennel, which he feels is more acceptable to the American palate. It’s fit for an emperor, with a subtle, mysterious aftertaste.
Other more modern pasta dishes include spaghetti alle vongole and ravioli in langoustine consommé. Spaghetti chitarra comes in a zesty sauce made with roast duck, which is a little dry. Potato-wrapped swordfish is paired with bitter broccoli rabe and orata (imported sea bream), with a caponata that gets a Calabrian accent with eggplant, green olives and capers, blood orange, lemons and olive oil. The short wine list is almost entirely Italian, with interesting choices that complement the food.
There’s not a lot that evokes ancient Rome in the desserts, which are elegant, light and fanciful, with spun sugar twirls and creamy gelati. Pear carpaccio is made with paper-thin slices of fruit under a caramel sauce; a creamy zeppole di risotto comes with honey ice cream and loquat compote. The chocolate cake is rich, dark and molten, served with pistachio gelato, and a delicate panna cotta is adrift on a coulis of mandarin orange. The chestnut soup, with chocolate gelato, marrons glacé and buckwheat crêpes, is lovely.
Culinaria is a delightful new restaurant, and the loquacious Mr. Pezzilli-who appears at the table with comments on each course-deserves to do very well with it.