Alto, NYC

April 5, 2010

There are widely varying opinions about the best Italian restaurant in New York. Alto is one of about ten candidates; it recently received two (of three possible) Michelin stars and three (of four possible) stars from The New York Times. So it was with great anticipation that Linda and I joined Andrea and Tony for dinner at Alto on March 30, 2010, celebrating the recent birthdays of both of the ladies and Tony’s upcoming birthday.We started by ordering a bottle of the only Italian sparkling wine on a French-heavy list, Cima Prosecco di Conegliano NV. It was a good start, more substantial than many sparkling proseccos and well balanced between tartness and sweetness.

We looked at the interesting menus. The basic offering is four courses for $84 with about ten choices in each course. We chose the seven course tasting menu at $130. It claims to be Piemontese; more on that later. Most of its courses were also on the à la carte menu.

Andrea had brought a bottle from her extraordinary cellar. The sommelier was impressed and, after decanting the bottle, began an extensive disussion with her. For our first red wine they agreed on a bottle of 2006 Rainoldi Sfursat, Fruttaio Ca’ Rizzieri. This nebbiolo from Lombardy has some of the grapes air-dried so it has a small Amarone characteristic. It was full and rich without being overpowering or jammy. Then we had Andrea’s bottle 1982 Gaja Sori Tilden Barbaresco. It had aged well and was elegant and powerful. Lucky us.

The amuse-gueule was a little mason jar with coarse polenta on the bottom, a layer of ricotta above and shaved black truffles on top.

This gave us a little taste of the truffles to come.

The first course was 
Carne Albese con Crescione e Parmigiano
creekstone farms beef tartar, watercress puree, parmigiano crisp

The raw beef was lean and flavorful. The watercress purée on the left was okay, but the tuna mayonnaise, normally served with vitello tonnato, was a perfect match.

Astice con Bagna Caoda e Caviale
poached lobster, trout roe, roasted cauliflower, piemontese anchovy sauce

A nice little piece of lobster will make any dish enjoyable, but this was a strange combination for me. The fishiness of the trout roe and the anchovies in the bagna cáuda sauce did help bring out the lobster flavor. Linda thought it was great. Andrea liked its decadence, particularly enjoying the salty crunch of the trout roe. She thought it would have been better with a rich white wine, but the first course and the rest of the meal called for red wine.

Sformato di Mandorle con Lumache
robiola and almond sformato, braised snail ragu, black truffle

Fresh, aromatic Umbrian black truffles were generously grated at the table over the light unmolded custard already topped with toasted almond crunchies. The sauce seemed to be based on a meat stock with the snails and chopped vegetables added. The dish was certainly imaginative; I found it enjoyable without thinking it was a great creation. The freshly grilled toast slices were a good textural addition. The aroma of the truffles seemed to be at its height as they were being sliced, but it did linger.

Uovo in Raviolo alla Bergese con Animelle
egg and spinach filled raviolo, crisp sweetbreads, black trumpet mushrooms

The egg was cooked just to the right amount of runniness with the spinach inside the raviolo. The deep-fried sweetbreads had a nice flavor, but were too small to make a statement. The black mushrooms were nice, but this would really have been the best dish to include the truffles, which is how it was when invented by Nino Bergese, chef to the last king of Italy and author of a renowned cookbook. 

Gnocchi alla Norcia
potato gnocchi, norcia-style black truffle and parmigiano

The name of this dish is misleading. Norcia is famous for its pork products, but it is in Umbria, from where the truffles come. For me the parmesan cheese sauce was too gooey to be a good textural match with the light potato gnocchi. The dish was enjoyable because there were good flavors in it, but the composition was not well thought out. Linda loved this dish and thinks I should give it a higher rating.  

Petto di Anitra e Cotechino
seared duck breast, tuscan lentils, duck cotechino, huckleberry jus

The duck breast was nicely done; other parts of the duck had gone into a sausage similar to cotechino, a pork sausage from Modena. Lentils and berries are less imaginative garnishes for duck than we had seen in previous dishes and they went well.

Duo di Panna Cotta al Cocco e al Torrone
passion fruit foam, hibiscus gelee, coconut shortbread
piemontese nougat semifreddo, hazelnut cake, warm chocolate sauce

The tropical fruit half of this dessert was appropriately light and frothy. Hazelnut and chocolate are a classic combination which was very well executed here.

As we had let slip that we were celebrating birthdays, this plate of sorbets to share arrived.

There was a small tray of excellent mignardises.

I enjoyed the meal and the evening, but the cuisine is hard to evaluate. All the dishes, except the tropical half of the dessert, had mostly Italian inspiration and ingredients, but none of them were upscale variations on Grandmother’s Italian cooking. Traditions of many regions throughout Italy were drawn on. The identification of the tasting menu as “Menu delle Langhe” Piemontese Tasting Menu was silly and misleading. The French influence was minimal, which is commendable and unusual in modernized Italian cuisine.  The egg-filled raviolo has become part of standard upscale Italian restaurant cuisine; maybe some of the other dishes are, too, and I don’t know it. I find it hard to relate to the description in Michelin of a “deliciously straightforward Italian menu, bursting with fresh seasonal ingredients.” I don’t think that the à la carte menu was much more straightforward Italian. So where does that leave us for ranking Alto among New York’s “Italian” restaurants? I don’t think I have had a better or more interesting meal at any of them; Linda is sure she has not. But if you want a more stereotypically classic Italian meal at an upscale NY restaurant, Felidia would be a more appropriate choice.

You can see that the birthday celebrants were happy. The decor is hyper-modern with walls of wine bottles behind glass. The service was excellent and the pace just right.

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