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There’s something about sitting at a bar at the end of the day with a glass of wine that I find immensely appealing. It’s very relaxing. You can be anonymous and just sort of unwind and tune out. (I don’t carry a blackberry, so I really can tune out.) And it was especially relaxing the other night at Aurora, while I was waiting for Jamie to arrive. I had walked down to Soho, and while it was quite hot out, there was a nice breeze coming up from the river. I arrived early, found a seat at the bar, and pulled out my magazine (I was reading the profile of Paul McCartney in the New Yorker), and ordered a glass of white —the Arneis. It was happy hour and so the bar, a strong slab of raw striped wood, was covered with free dishes of cubed cheese, plates of olive bread and mini pizzetas, bowls of olives, and white bean puree. Ingrid Lucia played overhead, and a set of wide floor-to-ceiling French doors was folded back accordion style, turning the front room into a sort of al fresco wine bar. When the breeze kicked up pile of cocktail napkins flew into the air.Review By: Andrea Strong
As I waited, I planned on reading more of the article, but I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation between the two women seated next to me. They were probably a few years younger than me, and were dressed in traditional summer in the city chick garb—flowing tops, short shorts, vintage aviator sunglasses perched on their heads. “I think you just have to do it,” the one woman said. “I mean if it’s been more than a week, it’s an issue.” “I know, but we’re so tired, and I just would rather go to sleep.” Oh, they were having that conversation. This might be good. I turned the page of my magazine to make my reading seem more authentic and less of a farce, and listened up. “I mean we’re in a rut, we just don’t do it anymore. Our sex life is totally fading. He doesn’t even seem to care.” Hmm. He might care, I thought.
“Well, that’s happened to us too,” her friend replied. “But you can’t wait for him to make a move, guys are lazy. You’ve gotta just do it. Just lean over and break the pattern.” “Yeah, I know,” her friend said with a sigh. “But I’d rather just drift off to sleep.” I wanted to hear more, but just then, Jamie arrived, and my attention was diverted. No more listening in on other people’s lives. Drats.
Jamie ordered a glass of Falanghina, a crispy white wine we drank while in Capri, and as we waited on Adrienne, we reminisced about our trip to visit Susie in October, when we canvassed Rome, Naples, Capri, and parts of Umbria and Tuscany in our very own eating and drinking road trip.
Aurora reminded me of that trip; the place smacks of Italy. If Susie were with us, she might’ve wandered outside looking for her street, Via della Frezza. First, there’s the space, which is filled with rustic details of the countryside—big canisters of flowers, mismatched tables and chairs, terra cotta and raw brick walls, and wood-planked floors. It’s sort of a smaller, but less cramped version of il Bucco. Then there’s the passionate wine director and manager, Gianluca Legrottaglie, who used to work at il Buco and hails from Rome and is so charming, I think he could seduce the Pope. He had Jamie at Buona Sera. (In addition to his charms, he’s also put together an impressive 80-bottle list of Italian wines made from only indigenous grapes—no Merlot or Chardonnay here.) And then there’s the chef, Riccardo Buitoni of Piedmont, a Slow Food advocate and who first brought his regional Italian cooking to New York with Aurora in Williamsburg in 2003. But Riccardo has now done the reverse commute, and found a spot on Broome Street, sadly located next to an oversized SUBWAY sandwich shop with a massive, highlighter-yellow aluminum awning. It’s dreadful. But once you walk inside and have a seat, it really doesn’t mater. You’re pretty much transported far away from fake meat sandwiches to the promised land of Italy.
In that promised land, dinner begins with a basket overflowing with house-made bread—a stone ground loaf of rustic wheat etched with cabbage is sliced up in a pile next to paper cones filled with little cubes of olive oil foccacia dotted with sweet tomato and caramelized onions. You honestly don’t need to go any further. You could just have the bread basket and perhaps a bottle of the Alba Rosato, Strade vigne del sole (2004), from Lazio ($30)—a cool dark rose that’s manages to be crisp and juicy at the same time—and be quite happy. But then you’d miss out on the antipasti, and you don’t want to do that.
Riccardo’s antipasti talents are considerable. Take the artichokes ($10), crisped up just at the edges and left tender in the center, served with white bean salad dolled up with mint and shaved Percorino. There was also a beautiful hand-cut beef crudo ($14), what you and I might call steak tartare, seasoned well with salt, pepper, a drizzle of 20-year old balsamic and a few hunks of beautifully salty aged Parmesan. A salad of porcini mushrooms reminded me of the one I had in Gubio. The mushrooms were meaty and lovely, dressed in olive oil and lemon and bedded on a bright little salad of field greens crowned with a veil of summer truffles. Even the beet salad was impressive. Roasted orange and red roots were showered with roasted pistachios and tucked into duo of ricotta cheeses—lumps of creamy ricotta and slices of firm and tangy ricotta salata. The contrast in flavors in textures was just terrific.
It’s probably not a shock to learn that Riccardo’s also got a gift for pasta. We had two of his housemade options, the gnudi ($30), which was a special that night, and a signature, the raviolini del Plin ($16). If you’re only experience with gnudi is from the Spotted Pig, well, you’re doing fine, but I should mention that these are a bit different. While April fashions hers simply from sheep’s milk ricotta that’s been dredged in a little semolina before cooking in brown butter, these are more complex. First they are larger, shaped more like ping pong balls than quarters. And while they are made with sheep’s milk ricotta, these dumplings also pack in black kale and Swiss chard, so there’s almost a mini-torta inside made of layers of vegetables and cheese. The raviolini are wonderful as well. They arrive shaped like rectangular envelopes filled with a little swell of Castelmagno, a cheese from Piedmont that’s rather ripe and tangy, and makes for a nice backdrop to a sauce of sautéed wild mushrooms.
His signature entrée is a 10-hour slow-roasted pork belly with white beans, broccoli rabe and caramelized apples ($20), but we were feeling quite hot that night, and a big ole pork belly was not calling us. What did call us was the lemon sole ($23), and while sole will never be pork belly, this was quite a fish. It’s cut into inch-thick filets and dusted in polenta and pan fried so it’s got a soft crunch on the outside that reveals sweet silky fish beneath. It’s served with the creamiest roasted peanut potatoes that are tossed with arugula, some slivered sautéed mushrooms and a grainy peppery mustard sauce. Adrienne doesn’t even eat fish and she was digging in, amazed at herself. But she was back to her normal self when dessert came along and she went for the chocolate cake. This is a woman who cannot be separated from chocolate for too long. She’s been known to bring down planes for chocolate before. You think I am kidding. If you ever meet Adrienne ask her to tell you the story of the chocolate chip cookies in First Class and what happened when she discovered they didn’t have them. Anyway, while she was making quick work of a chocolate cake (I stayed away for fear of being hurt), Jamie and I were enjoying the lemon curd tart, served on a buttery shortbread crust made with pine nuts. Gianluco served us a dessert wine from Montefalco that again took us back to out two-week excursion through Italy when we ate lunch overlooking the hills of Umbria in Montefalco. We toasted to our trip and to Susie, who we wished had been with us for dinner at Aurora.
By the time we left the restaurant, we were already making plans for a return trip to Italy, and the two women whose conversation I had eavesdropped on, were still at the bar, joined by a few other girlfriends. Bottles of rose were emptied between them and they seemed quite (hiccup) happy. Who knows what happened later.
Entree Price: $20-25
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