Sunday, February 5, 2012

Surprise of the Year

I am so frequently let down by New York restaurants that a genuinely delicious experience often sends me reeling. Twice now in the past two weeks I have found elusive culinary grandeur in humble Italian roots. Two weeks ago, it was Il Buco on Bond Street. This past week, I found a similar transcendent experience at Maialino.

Maialino divorces itself from the pomp and circumstance that is the Gramercy Park Hotel, where the rustic, full, and comfy restaurant lives. If the hostess takes you toward the back, know that you are in capable hands and are heading to a row of low, linen-backed banquettes, which make a person feel like she is eating in someone's really nice and comfortable Restoration Hardware-outfitted apartment.

Immediately, cheesy and crispy breadsticks arrive, along with crusty bread that is nothing like the saltless version offered up in Tuscany. Maialino has a wide selection of charcuterie, and on the night we were there they were offering a recently cured bresola, thin sliced-beef that usually has the consistency of rubber tire. But not at Maialino, where the careful plate came with olive oil and lemon juice and salt--nothing more. The tender beef, more akin to a lovely roast than an old steak, required no more frill than that.

A plate of fried things included brains, sweetbreads, and artichokes. Artichokes, rarely my favorite, sang through the light batter and bright squeeze of a lemon. Brains were regrettably gooey and undersalted and reminded me why such things should only be served at their best (I was brought back to a memory of eating them fried in a wine cellar in Spain). But sweetbreads redeemed the plate.

Then a pasta duo, one with a starchy sauce of salt and pepper and cheese and one of stuffed shells with Italian sausage and deep green kale. The plates are small enough to keep a calorie count intact and encourage sharing in favor of ordering other dishes on the menu. We wiped our plates clean, breathless by the time our final course--the restaurant's signature suckling pig--came out. Pressed under the weight of a crispy shingle of skin, the meat was tender and juicy, complimented by a side of crispy Brussels sprouts.

We attempted two desserts, donuts with apple glaze that were delicious if ordinary, and a bread pudding made from chocolate croissants. The latter stole my heart, as did so many things at Maialino.

2 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10010

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