23 June 2010

Otto Enoteca Pizzeria

I spent Monday with one of my roommates, Steven, walking the entire perimeter of Central Park, only stopping to visit the Zoo. After some downtime at home (and by downtime, I mean naptime), we were both ready for dinner. Italian? Absolutely.

Otto is one of my favorite places in the city for Italian food, not least because the prices are reasonable, but also because with Mario Batali behind the operation you know you're getting a quality product. Steven and I decided to take the family-style approach, ordering multiple items to share:

caprese salad
pizza bianca

spaghetti alla carbonara
pasta alla norma

The caprese salad was delicious, though as far as I can tell, untraditional. It's not quite tomato time yet, which might be the reason for this. At any rate, this caprese consisted of chilled, stewed tomatoes and a good-sized chunk of fresh mozzarella. The salad was topped with basil pesto and sprinkled with pine nuts. Lately I've been obsessed with what I refer to as the "crunch factor" in a dish. I loved the pine nuts for their crunch factor.

Pizza Bianca is as simple as can be - pizza dough brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. Delicious, and perfect for sopping up bits of remaining pesto.

I'm no fan of spaghetti (the need for a spoon... the slurping... etc...), but carbonara gets me every time. I mean, it's essentially bacon and eggs with pasta, and how can that be bad? Batali's version is classic, with perfectly-cooked pasta and enough black pepper to be noticed, but not steal from the pancetta, egg, and scallions.

Pasta alla Norma (thankfully) is a penne dish, topped with thick, stewed tomatoes, lots of basil, tender eggplant, and creamy, creamy bufala ricotta. The tomatoes and ricotta blend together beautifully to create a rich sauce, marrying the remaining flavor components in an understated, classic way.

Dessert gets its own paragraph because Meredith Kurtzman's gelato is by far, without a doubt, the best in New York City. In fact, the main reason Otto was conceived in the first place was to present an outlet for Meredith's creations. Her plated desserts are in the style of the coppetta: Italian for cup.  For instance, the olive oil coppetta currently consists of passion fruit granita, basil syrup, strawberries, candied kumquats, and olive oil gelato, served in what resembles a coupe-style champagne glass. It is a thing of beauty.

Olive oil gelato is one of the reasons I wanted Steven to eat at Otto. I had mentioned it to him before in conversation, and he couldn't quite grasp the concept of tasting something he naturally recognized in one form in the form of something completely different. So, we ordered:

olive oil gelato with salted brioche
a tasting of three gelatos: milk chocolate chip, salty peanut, caramel

The brioche basically turns a scoop of gelato into a gelato sandwich. Surprised and pleased, Steven learned to adapt familiar flavors into new textures. What's so fantastic about all of Meredith's gelati is that the flavors are really intense. It's as though a peanut's original purpose was to be spun into gelato base, and olive oil's natural form was frozen.

This was a meal that made me really miss having my own kitchen space. Everything we ate can so easily be made at home (I love cracking that egg over the carbonara to finish the dish!) - even the gelato, with the help of an ice cream machine. Not to shamelessly pitch (for I have absolutely no reason to do so), but if you're looking for simple Italian recipes, Batali's most recent book would be a great addition to your cookbook collection. Molto Gusto is co-written by chef Mark Ladner of Del Posto, and is based on the dishes prepared and served at Otto. There are even gelato recipes...

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