By Rory Winston
It’s easier to be faithful to a restaurant than to a woman”, said Federico Fellini, the director after whose most sumptuous character in Amacord they named Gradisca (gradiscanyc.com). And, it’s hard to imagine any patron risking infidelity if it could result in losing the sexy little Italian minx whose exposed brick walls, sanguine skin, and flickering candlelit tables sit elegantly draped in classic brownstone.
As trattorias are concerned, Gradisca is a filmed opera – a series of arias without long intermissions or any of the ponderous affectation. From the Cappesante Antipasti - with its pan-seared diver scallops beached on a parsnip puree - to the Funghi al Tartufo Insalate - where trumpet royale, marinated porcini and montasio frico wash over one in waves – Gradisca is a lush cinematic world that turns your palate into a grand proscenium.
As the curtain rises, the usual hero of our Italian story, the Primi, makes its grand entrance. Tagliatelle Nero returns fresh from the sea, covered in squid ink, baring a succulent bounty of cuttlefish. Waiting humbly on shore, a plump but delicate Potato gnocchi dressed in Parmesan fondue and decorated in a somber black truffle sauce loses us in her reveries. Cut to: idyllic moments lost amongst the many vineyards of Italy. With a treasury of affordable, albeit rare, vintages, Gradisca is a veritable confession booth for any who believe that ‘in Vino veritas’.
For the second act, Filetto di Branzino scottato performs a divine canon with wild bass filet, smokey fregula, cioppino and crispy leeks; this, while the powerful Brasato di Wagyu al Barolo eyes him suspiciously, his young asiago huddled next to him covered in sage and peas. Yes, I’m pushing the libretti metaphors in excess. But, in all honesty, by the time the Pana Cotta Zafferano and the Affogato alla Rovescio make their curtain calls, it is hard to imagine even the most reserved audience member not feeling a heartfelt ‘bravo’ welling up from deep within.
Perhaps it does take a filmmaker like Fellini to notice that dining has always been about more than just the food. It is a storytelling event where rhythm, ambience and casting of ingredients all play important parts. Fellini was right; it is easy to be faithful to a Restaurant – especially if the temptress is Gradisca.
Unlike many American Italian joints that veer precariously towards an eateries equivalent of the ‘Spaghetti Western’, Gradisca is – pardon the idiosyncratic term – a genuine ‘Pasta Drama’, as unequivocally Italian as the authentic mama originally responsible for all the handmade tortellini.
As fidelity is concerned, if the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, it’s hard to imagine anyone turning down an encore performance at Gradisca. •
126 West 13th Street