(Note: this is a long one; I got excited.)
Fabio Trabocchi was taking an unnecessary risk when he came to New York to assume chef-partnership of the reimagined Fiamma on Spring Street in Soho. He was Food & Wine's Best New Chef in 2002, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington's Chef of the Year in 2005, and just last year, won the honor of being the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef - Mid-Atlantic--all for his work at Maestro at the Ritz-Carlton Tyson's Corner in McLean, VA. This was not a guy whose career needed a boost. And yet, he decided to leave all that behind and make his way north to notoriously tough Manhattan this summer, to take the reins of a restaurant that had garnered a Michelin star and three from the Times under its previous chef. The stakes were considerable.
I got to Fiamma just about on time for our reservation. My husband, Gourmando, who I knew was running late, had not yet arrived. The hostess invited me back to the bar where, she assured me, Javier would take care of me. And take care of me he did. When I told him that I was looking for something sweet, he suggested the Fruit cocktail, explaining to me what the egg white was for (garnish and frothiness) and that once it touched the alcohol, bacterial concerns were a thing of the past. He checked in with me as I sipped to make sure that it was sweet enough, which I told him it was, although few drinks truly are sufficiently unalcoholic-tasting for my fluffy pink poodle of a cocktail palate. Javi practically gleamed with his pride at being behind the bar there. He was pleased at the changes the restaurant had undergone since Fiamma Osteria became simply Fiamma last Monday. He was enjoying his new glassware, among other things, and was eager to know what I thought of the place. We joked as though he had poured me a drink every evening for the last several years. By the time Gourmando arrived, Javi knew my name and wished us a splendid meal.
Fiamma is a veritable hug of a place even beyond the solicitous service. The walls are a glossy, comforting reddish wood and much of the tableware is made of this terrific thick, bubbly glass. This is somewhere you want to hang out. The language is welcoming, too. When our waiter brings us a little something—which most restaurants call an amuse-bouche, or simply an amuse—to start the meal, he refers to it as “a treat from the chef.” I love that; it’s a simple choice that makes us feel looked-after, as though the Chef-Partner Fabio Trabocchi wants to make sure we, specifically, have a great dinner, and so he sent this out to start it off right. It was a treat indeed: whipped cod, crispy squash blossoms, and a little cup of tomato water that somehow managed to be utterly tomatoey even though it was colorless. Trabocchi and his staff are magicians, and we didn’t even know it yet.
For my first course, I had something called Il Tonno. These were cubes of ruby ahi perfection, topped with shimmering little morsels of Caraquet oyster, the two blissfully united with tangy lemon confit. The closest I’ve ever been to being someone who clamors for oysters was when my mother was pregnant with me and craved them terribly one night. And now that I think of it, that may have been when she was pregnant with my brother. I’ve had a few (oysters, that is) in my time and usually find them curious and odd and best enjoyed with copious helpings of vinegary, shallot-infested mignonette. These, however, were fresh and oh, so clamor-worthy. That the little stacks were elevated on a sort of platform made from that blown glass, each one in its own little indentation, seemed wholly appropriate to their excellence—not to mention very pretty.
Gourmando started with Il Carpaccio, which was a duo of raw beefs, one a tartare with mushroom and Parmigiano, and the other tenderloin wrapped around marinated tofu, with a poached quail egg on top. Beef wrapped around tofu? The combination was unexpected genius. The presentation was beautiful and the two preparations were tender and expertly seasoned. It was something I would never have thought to order myself, but I count myself lucky to have married someone who is both gastronomically more adventurous than I and always willing to share a bite.
My main course was called, simply, I Ravioli, which so doesn’t begin to evoke what was happening on my plate. It was listed as Maine lobster ravioli with ginger and Sicilian Olio Verde. My eyebrows were raised slightly at the appearance of ginger in Italian environs, but I pressed on. Blessed be. As far as lobster goes, I am what can be called a claw girl. Lobster tails are easier to come by in the restaurant world, but I find them frequently chewy and inferior to the succulent claw meat. Well, I had found my match in I Ravioli. These were, to my mind, less ravioli and more dumplings, the skin translucent, letting through the red and white of the lobster meat within. And beside them was naked lobster meat, including my very own claw, fairly beckoning me closer. It didn’t even need to ask. The ginger turned out to provide a brilliant fusion of Asian flavors and Italian concepts.
Gourmando’s main course was I Vincisgrassi, a lasagna from Chef Trabocchi’s home region of Le Marche in the upper calf of the Italian boot (which I like to think of as knee-high, but if you prefer it as thigh-high, then think of it as where the saddlebags would be in a less svelte country). The lasagna came with ovoli mushroom salad and black truffle. “Do you think these truffles came from a jar?” Gourmando asked me, testing the waters of his good fortune. All the jarred truffles we have known were far smaller than these could possibly have been. Could they really be fresh? At this reasonable price? As I look at this week’s version of the Fiamma dinner menu online, I notice that the truffles are no longer listed and that the price has been reduced. So it looks as though Gourmando hit the fungus jackpot. The whole lasagna was delectable.
“Would you like to see the cheese menu or the dessert menu?” our waiter asked us after we had finished our main courses. Yes, we replied, we would like to see them both. And so it was that we ordered a plate of three cheeses to share: Tomme du Berger, a semi-soft raw sheep- and goat’s-milk cheese from France; Capra Sardo, a hard goat’s-milk cheese from Sardinia (I am the goat cheese maven of the two of us, and Gourmando generously let his mold-phobic wife pick two of the cheeses if I would allow a blue for the third. Marriage is all about compromise, no?); and Strachitunt, a cow’s-milk blue from Lombardy. The blue turned out to be quite mild, and so I really came out a winner. It’s hard to find a loser, though, when you’re dealing with three good cheeses and the attendant pageantry of sunflower honey, white wine jelly, quince paste, fig cake, and anise cookies.
But wait, there’s more! Not order dessert? Do you really think I’d do that to you? I had La Mela, featuring sheep yogurt mousse, compressed apples, apple consommé, and nepitella, an herb that smells like a mix of mint and oregano. It was good, but had several hard acts to follow, and didn’t quite measure up to its predecessors. We felt the same way about Gourmando’s dessert, Il Caramello, a combination of caramel textures (their word, not ours), nonino amaro gel, made from an Italian herbal liqueur, and vanilla.We almost went back to Fiamma the other night to have the tasting menu, but it was the weekend and we didn’t yet have a reservation. But we are that eager to return. I assured Javi on our way out that he has much to smile about: the new Fiamma is a tremendous success.