By Nalini Leilani
Chef Will Foden and Wine Director Jean-Luc Le Du recently re-crafted the menu at 83 ½, the farm-to-table Italian gem on the Upper East Side. Owner Vincenzo Mangiafridda’s previous culinary treasure served as the muse for his newest. The idea behind 83 ½ began to ferment in his mind while developing Gino’s Pizzeria, a 20-year-old beloved neighborhood spot, and in between trips to the family farm in Caccamo, Sicily.
The heart and soul of Italian food is grounded in home cooking, and such intimacy is what makes 83 ½ special. The restaurant only seats 40 and patrons can observe the bustling kitchen from their tables or vie for the chef’s counter that seats five: offering a prime view of the kitchen. Regardless of where you sit, the owner is known for making everyone feel like family.
The small, farm-to-table restaurant utilizes seasonal produce—a rare, but coveted trait within Manhattan’s dining landscape. The menu strongly favors Mangiafridda’s Sicilian roots and incorporates the freshest produce available. We started with a couple of small plates: chicken liver with grappa-soaked grapes, poached tuna, and baccala polpettes (braised salt cod dumplings). The dishes were flavorful enough to whet our appetites for the meal to come yet left us awaiting the subsequent courses. The “stuzzicare” also includes dishes such as caponata, an eggplant with raisins and pine nuts that is aromatic and true to the Arab influence in Sicilian cooking.
Next, we had the burrata and steamed cockles. The burrata was velvety silken and impeccably fresh. The steamed cockles were light and complemented the hearty burrata well.
The first proper course of a traditional Italian meal is usually pasta; here, all are made in-house. I went with the rich and creamy spaghetti carbonara—the pork cheek and farm fresh egg made it a dish that was filling and balanced. My companion enjoyed the tagliatelle with cuttlefish—a dish that was lighter but just as savory; the tomatoes, basil, and pepperoncino were simple but absolutely satisfying.
For our second course, we went with the “Rabbit Siciliana” and grilled orata. The rabbit was more delicate than you would expect and came with a chickpea side. The orata was wrapped in escarole and accompanied with a Sorrento lemon and extra-virgin olive oil.
Our time in the restaurant was reminiscent of the long, indulgent, and multi-course repast that is typical of a meal in Italy itself. 83 ½ is truly a neighborhood gem, but better than a neighborhood restaurant should be. •
345 E 83rd St.