Don Angie Is the Next Evolution of Italian-American Cuisine
The restaurant from Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli is the rare red sauce spot that challenges diners Italian-American restaurants are simple. Theyre not known for their freewheeling interpretations of classics or elegantly composed small plates; instead, theyre cultural treasures famous for adherence to tradition, having provided unfussy nourishment to New Yorkers since the early 20th century. Theyre places where the marinara is cooked until its as crimson as a fire engine and where a chefs visual style is best described as make sure the food fits on the plate.The point of a red sauce joint is not to surprise, but to sate, which is what makes Don Angie in the West Village such a curious outlier. It does both. Chefs Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli make their own amari, not out of obscure bitter herbs but rather out of sarsaparilla (it tastes like boozy root beer). They crust chicken scarpariello with a layer of fennel sausage and serve it sliced, giving it the appearance of an elegant French terrine. And they make garlic bread by stuffing sesame-seeded flatbread with straccino and Parmesan. The nutty, stretchy affair is closer to a Ligurian focaccia di recco or an Indian cheese paratha than the toasty, mozzarella-topped product with which most suburbanites are familiar. I wouldnt have known this was Italian-American food if you hadnt told me, a companion admitted during a meal here, which means Don Angie is doing what so many other cuisines are allowed to do: surprise (and challenge) diners just a little bit, and by doing so, evolve. Chefs Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli Once upon a time, New York had another Don Angie of sorts. Its name was Torrisi, and it opened in 2010. It was a tiny tasting spot that sought a freeform future for red sauce fare, serving up dishes that both celebrated Italian-American cooking and exalted New York multiculturalism. There were high-end riffs on Manhattan clam chowder, Cantonese-style chicken oysters, Jamaican beef patty ragus, and Manischewitz-glazed lamb chops. As a sequel, the team behind Torrisi opened the more retro-minded Carbone, embracing the traditions of yesteryear, reinterpreting postwar Italian-American chophouses through better techniques, better ingredients, stratospheric prices, and scattered Godfather and Goodfellas references. It wouldnt take too long for Carbone to pop up elsewhere, in Las Vegas and Hong Kong, just as Olive Garden expanded to Mexico City and Kuwait. Torrisi, in turn, would close after five years. Like it so often does, nostalgia won out over more forward-looking innovation.Don Angie picks up where Torrisi left off; Rito was a longtime chef at that tasting-menu restaurant. And while the digs are decidedly old-school rounded archways, warm lighting, checkered floors the high levels of acid and global influences make the venue the Italian-American equivalent of a French neobistro. That is to say: The chefs took a staid genre, updated it, internationalized it, refined dishes here and there, but kept everything pretty affordable. Clockwise from top left: The dining room at Don Angie; pepperoni fried rice with squid; the restaurants summertime sidewalk patio; a chrysanthemum caesar saladThis type of smart creativity isnt what one expects from the operator: Quality Branded, a group known for its reliable food yet somewhat gimmicky flourishes, be it Park Avenue, a restaurant that changes its decor with the seasons, or Quality Italian, whose kitchen Tacinelli and Rito oversee as well. At that latter venue, the duo earned a certain degree of fame (or notoriety?) for grinding up chicken and frying it up into the shape of a parm pizza for, like, $60.Don Angies subversions are more studied. Prosciutto with melon the sweet-salty staple of hotel conference buffets finds new life here thanks to toasted hazelnuts, for crunch, and tamarind, for pucker. The chefs reimagine Caesar salad, a dish created by an Italian immigrant living in Mexico, by swapping out the lettuce for a canopy of herbaceous chrysanthemum. When finished with Parmesan, the dish packs the fluffy texture of cotton candy. Rito and Tacinelli send out snapper tartare hidden under a layer of raw trumpet mushrooms, Ignacio Mattos style, amping up the fungi flavors of a tart porcini dashi. And they throw together a superb fried rice, lacing the grains with pepperoni, charring the bottom layer like a Spanish paella, and topping it all off with a silky mound of seared calamari. The dish reflects an understanding of Italian-American fare that recalls the way Empellons Alex Stupak approaches Mexican cuisine; its not so much a classically elevated preparation as it is a take on red sauce fare as a larger set of ideas. Caramelle pasta with buffalo milk and pickled cantaloupe Italian-American restaurants have long been some of the citys toughest tables, from the aforementioned Carbone in Greenwich Village to Raos in East Harlem. More or less from the day it opened, having dinner at Don Angie has been only marginally less difficult than eating at a private club, Pete Wells wrote in his two-star review early this spring. Reservations still book up well in advance, but walk-ins are usually accommodated at the bar in under 45 minutes or so, a wait that will admittedly lengthen when the patio closes for the winter. One could easily justify any sort of wait, quite frankly, for Don Angies cantaloupe caramelle. The kitchen takes black and yellow dough as vivid as the colors of a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform and cuts it into oblong dumplings, stuffing each sachet with buffalo milk ricotta and twisting the ends like old-fashioned candy bar wrappers. The dairy oozes out from the caramelle when pierced, softening the agrodolce rush of a pickled cantaloupe sauce. The pairing recalls a 1980s-style blend of cottage cheese and fruit, taken to Michelin-worthy heights. My companion called it a failed experiment. I call it perfect. Chicken scarpariello at Don Angies Equally stunning are the sopresini with smoked mussels, the folds of pasta slicked with an electric emulsion of pimenton, anchovy sauce, lime, Sriracha, and cilantro. One could turn the sauce into a sandwich spread and it would taste no less refined.For mains: Skip the shell steak, burdened under a layer of confit lemon thick enough to count as cake frosting. Better is the orata, sitting in a pool of Mexican-style guajillo oil, lending just a gentle flicker of smoke. Veal da pepi, perhaps the citys best rendition of Milanese, exhibits layers of flavor and texture that would wow a tempura chef. The softness of the meat, the crunch of the fry, the saltiness of the prosciutto topping, and the deep, rich flavors of carraway are a rare hat tip to tradition here. Fior di latte gelato stuffed inside homemade mochi In addition to a few standard desserts a mascarpone-heavy tiramisu, a zeppole with honey theres something that looks precisely like a ball of mozzarella with olive oil. As if. In this little bit of trompe loeil, the chefs mold house-made mochi around obscenely milky fior di latte gelato. This classic Japanese pairing of rice flour and ice cream is often stretchy and edible with ones hands not too dissimilar, in theory, from fresh mooz. Problem is, Don Angie serves it at a temperature so low it requires a bit of knife-and-fork action. It evokes cheese thats spent too much time in the fridge. Thats a small gripe, however, for a dish that essentially manages to reinvent mozzarella. Sometimes a risk is more exhilarating than perfect execution or deference to tradition. Thats a lesson more Italian-American spots could learn.