By Rory Winston
Shortly after Flatiron’s Ciano closed, the genius of a restaurateur, Stratis Morfogen, insouciantly announced, “Well, I’m going back to Italian-American” – this after realizing that his renowned purist of a chef, Shea Gallante, was taking himself out of the picture. The comment, unlike the resulting cuisine, could have been taken with a grain of salt especially since like most of Morfogen’s creations, the new Cucina Ciano was a work of art in progress – one in which process and vision were not only in flux but coexisted in what can best be referred to as a progressive tarantella whose outcome would prove seductive. With the help of his partner, Unik Ernest, Cucina Ciano has succeeded in becoming a tiny gourmet bastion in the Upper East Side.
But let’s go back to the mission statement, ‘Italian-American.’ The term has innumerable interpretations. It can mean anything from ‘ancestrally Italian but acclimated to local tastes’ to ‘more quintessentially Italian than real Italians (since those who rediscover their past often do so with the zeal of a convert)’ to ‘immigrant Italian with all the nuances that adaptation entails’. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that in the case of Cucina Ciano it means whimsical forays into regional Italian cuisine – each departure harmonized with the given season.
Executive Chef Tin Huynh – an idiosyncratic name for a Neapolitan if ever there was one – has come up with arguably the best veal meatballs in the city. Authentic? Amor tutti egguaglia as they say; and you can really taste Huynh’s love for all things Italian in every bite. From the imported Burrata cheese with Panzella arugula salad to the Mancini Spaghetti Arrabiatra sauce to the Strozzapreti with Duck Bolognese Pregano, there is little doubt that he is a genuine cuoco Italiano at core. For the more skeptical, I suggest a brief gustatory sojourn into the house-made pappardelle with pork ragout, caramelized onions and marcilla.
When it comes to ambience and décor, it is utterly Milanese – in other words, as cosmopolitan and un-Italian as most high-end establishments in the homeland. Amber bartops and stools, light wooden tables, an exposed brick wall with a darker wood paneling in the private dining room below make for a club-like atmosphere that is further reaffirmed by the piped in Sinatra. With all the Southern Italian tomato sauces and the Northern Italian décor and the American Italian music… well, I think I’ll have to return several more times before jumping to any conclusions. •
181 E 78th Street
New York, NY 10075