[Free Stuff by Wilfrid: June 23, 2014]
This, surely, is not promising. An almost unmarked doorway on 51st Street, stairs leading down to a basement restaurant; somebody offering menus at the top of the stairs. A step from Rockefeller Plaza and Radio City Musical Hall, a few doors from Johnny Utah's.
I mean, could this really be good? This is a place which would likely never have been on my list to visit. And I'd have missed out.
What led me here was an invitation to explore the menu as a guest. Descending the stairs to a busy bar and noisy cellar restaurant, I did wonder if I'd let myself in for just another competent Italian dinner; not hard to find, even in midtown.
Da Marcella Mediterranean Taverna offers considerably more than that.
This midtown location--opened in 2013-- is, in fact, the off-shoot of the Greenwich Village original--which opened in 2012. The first Da Marcella, in addition to being a much smaller restaurant, is tightly focused on traditionalItalian cuisine (ten dollar pastas like linguine and clams, mains like chicken "Diavolo."
In midtown, the menu mixes Spanish with Italian influences. Owner Manuel Moreno is from a Spanish family, but he was born in Italy; and as an adult, he came to New York and became a baker.
These days, octopus seems less Mediterranean, and more idiomatic Manhattan-Brooklyn. It's this year's pork belly, now everyone seems to have figured out how to give it a char without turning into rubber (it wasn't always this way, believe me). Da Marcella's version is as giving as you could wish; it's described as "Catalan" style, which means a very simple marinade featuring rosemary, garlic, and salt and pepper. Big Lampedusa capers raised the volume.
I was enjoying the octopus so complacently, that I was practically jarred by the superiority of the salmon tartare. Fish tartare: not something to make my pulse race. But this was Scottish salmon, smartly chopped with cool, refreshing avocado. Nice dish--and a nice Albariño for the wine pairing. Da Marcella has around eighteen wines by the glass, with nine on rotation.
A light, savory Chianti showed up with the burrata, served on toast over San Daniele ham. Aromas of truffle, if you like that kind of thing.
Unlike many New Yorkers, and doutbless some of my readers, meatballs were not close to my heart when I was growing up. Sure, we ate them, but we didn't even have a fantasy of nonna simmering them to perfection in the kitchen. I find them an unglamorous dish, but these were pleasing specimens--pork, veal, and thank goodness not weighted down with heavy breading.
The pasta interlude needed to be simple in a menu of this length. House-made tagliatelle with just a trace of tomatoey Bolognese sauce. An unusual Cabernet-Montepulciano blend with this-- Sada's 2011 "Integolo."
And then what some folks around the table took to be the climax and finale of the meal (oh no, no it wasn't). A grand paella with Bomba rice, and plenty of saffron. Clams, mussels, chicken, wedges of lemon. A glorious dish cooked right, and I've had it cooked very, very badly in New York. Chef Francesco Mueses doesn't get it wrong.
Yes, paella is practically a self-contained feast. But I still wanted the costa di manzo, especially with the wine we were drinking. I feel I've paid my dues to Rioja, but if I ever heard of the "hairy tempranillo"--a fuzzy version of the classic grape--I'd certainly forgotten about it. Here it was, the Tempranillo Peludo "6 Sombreros" 2005. Not easily found retail, and a delicious wine. The Rioja secondary notes of leather armchairs and tobacco are beginning to emerge, but it's still a very young wine (and sadly, not available BTG).
Oh the beef rib? Yes, black as mahogany, melting, and served with ample polenta.
I am not the dessert guy, as regular readers know: still less after appetizers, pasta, paella, and meat. The tiramisu, panna cotta, and a light ricotta cheesecake, will do the job if you have room for them.
So a challenge to presumptions at a place which, judging by the midweek bustle, scarcely needs my approval. Add to your midtown list; even go out of your way to try wines and some of these dishes at the bar.
Here's the website.