[Free stuff by Wilfrid: June 18, 2012]
There are some things you just don't know until someone tells you. I wouldn't have known, for instance, that Paprika, a familiar St Mark's Place veteran, was debuting a new menu had I not received an invitation to come try it.
You all know Paprika. It's been there forever (or a dozen years, anyway), on the south side of St Mark's between Avenue A and First Avenue. You might have taken it for a central European joint, thanks to the name, but you figured out is one of many nice, neighborhood Italian trattorias. Well, no longer.
And I mean really sharply. Valtellina -- yes, I had to look it up -- is practically an Alpine region, on the border of Italy and Switzerland. This is mountain cuisine, rich in dairy products, accented with pickled, preserved vegetables, hearty with buckwheat. Honestly, not a tomato in sight.
The dining room reflects the style of the menu: white-bricked with agricultural implements on display. No Chianti kitsch. Speaking of which, the wine-list is strong in northern selections, like the 100% arneis Cordero di Montezemelo with which we started the evening, a peachy choice with enough acid to make a fine aperitif.
The highlights of the new menu, for me at least, were to be found among the smaller plates -- the appetizers, salads and pasta. There was a fashionable -- and appealing -- bitterness to a salad of dandelion leaves with house-pickled radishes and one of the cheeses from the region, the soft, young cows-milk Crescenza.
There are two ways to go with beef. The simple crudo is a beefy tartare served with a chicory salad.
More typical is the bresaola, air-cured beef, served in bright red slices. I've had bresaola which was dried quite hard, but here it has a velvety texture and mild flavor, pricked up with pickled oyster mushrooms.
The buckwheat polenta with regional cheeses was a crowd-pleaser, and good value for sharing at $14. The hit among the cheeses was Bitto, a dense, nutty Gruyère impersonator. Chef Donagrandi produced a brick of it from the kitchen after the meal, and started carving slices for us. Hard to stop eating it.
The buckwheat polenta, which has a chewy, grainy texture, was sourced from Buon Italia at Chelsea Markets. I hadn't seen it before.
More Alpine credentials came with the spaetzle, home-made and garnished with pieces of Brussel sprout and fava beans.
The house pickling project is on the right tracks. I loved the sweet pickled onions, which to me were a replica of what English people -- believe it or not -- love to eat with fish and chips.
There are several wines on the list from Sandro Fay, a maker located smack in the middle of the Valtellina alps, growing Nebbiolo on steep terraces. This red was rich, chewy, well-suited to this food.
Buckwheat again, this time in the pizzocheri, a flat noodle served here with Casera cheese, Savoy cabbage, and slices of potato. I think the flavor palette is pretty clear: fresh and pickled vegetables, interesting starches, mountain cheese.
After this tour around the upper reaches of the menu, the meat entrées -- lamb meatballs, grilled shell steak -- seemed more conventional. The grilled trout is worth a second look, though -- almost blackened, balanced with sweet fennel and spring onions.
More happening behind the doors of Paprika, then, than you would suppose, and I was pleased to be introduced to, really, a completely new cuisine. The website is here, but be warned -- it still displays the old menu.