Wednesday, November 4, 2015

restaurant review: La Pecora Bianca

La Pecora Bianca
1133 Broadway
New York, NY

When we speak about trying new flavors, we tend to mean the unknown: sautéd grasshoppers on an impromptu trip to Mexico, awash with aguardiente, blazing sun, a leap of faith. At La Pecora Bianca, "new" means what you already know, but different. The food had a consistent and vaguely obnoxious way of proving me wrong. Like good art (think Ed Ruscha's word paintings) it mocked me a little, but not too much that pretension inhibited pleasure.

The first dish we had - roasted whole golden Enoki - can only be described as a giant mushroom. In the thrilling moments of pre-bite suspense the word density came to mind, as in the dense, musty quality of a proper giant mushroom. It was anything but. Cool and earthy like the sound of footsteps on wet marsh, its filaments free and unabashed, stringy and textured. A light and airy departure from density, sitting on a puddle of the greenest salsa verde (we asked for more and were presented with an entire bowl, as if to say: this is a no-judgment zone), bread crumbs, raisins. I ran the emotional gamut from start to finish, beginning with the anxiety of realizing that a heady and indulgent experience this was not, to acceptance to rediscovery and ultimately, a strangely calm satisfaction. This was not the loud mushroom mass outputted by kitchens, where flavor is forced, sweated out in a hot pan. La Pecora Bianca waltzed in imperceptibly, and quietly and elegantly, it showed up all the glitzy fungi in town.

Pesche came next, charred peaches smothered in sheep's milk ricotta that felt luxuriously like dessert despite the fact that it falls under the menu's antipasti. Candied lemon zest dots the dish like grown-up sprinkles on an an ice cream cone and it is all campfire memories after that. Ricotta makes for a savory variation of à la mode. It screamed summer's almost through and tasted like nostalgia (like the salty tears in the wedding cake batter in the book Water for Chocolate.)

While "pesche" is just a fancy word for peaches, "einkorn gramigna" is a more complicated mouthful. The gist of this primi is that house made pork sausage competes with homemade pasta for feel-good attention. The real star, however, is the garlic, which somehow manages to not be overpowered and, conversely, to overpower nothing. If it makes more sense, here again there is the sense of reinvention that carries on Claudette/Mark Barak's tradition of juxtaposing surprise and subtlety. Invisible but discernible, this garlic dares to be introspective and challenge its identity as a tried-but-true staple of Italian gastronomy, discovering a fresh multi-functionality. It adds a kick to the gramigna while playing on pork's sweetness and still lands on its own two feet, autonomous with a fierce personality: a keeper.

Disaster struck the final course when the server delivered the news that the kitchen was out of ricotta cheesecake, doubly tragic as it forced a choice between panna cotta and chocolate mousse, a face-off not for the faint of heart. The former won me over and will seduce even the most timid dessert-orderers. Because panna cotta at La Pecora is made with sheep's milk (hankering back to the charred peaches a few dishes earlier), perfumed with lemon verbena, finished off with candied lavender, and served in a little glass jar that looks just like those Parmalat yogurt containers rife in European supermarkets, it is slightly silly. But it is also extremely mature and requires supervision, lest you polish it off in minutes.

"Pecora bianca" means white sheep in Italian, and certainly evokes a sort of childish innocence. Sheep have an unfortunate reputation for being blind followers. Sitting at the chef's counter at La Pecora Bianca I understood the wile behind the name.


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