Sunday, March 26, 2006

NYC: Home of Italian Greatness... "Po"

I knew moving to New York was the right choice when my simple neighborhood Italian restaurant was better than the best Italian restaurant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Really.

That spot is Pesce Pasta (now an UWS staple) and yes, you'll find me at the wine bar more than a few times a month. It's that place where you can barely get in the door, thanks to a 3 tier table bursting with fresh antipasto... 4 dollar glasses of wine... and the reality that the menu is the menu, but knowing that the kitchen will make you darn near anything you desire.

But when the NY Times travel section had a cover feature on Rome this weekend, my wife and I knew that we'd journey out of the "hood" in search of yet another Italian gem.

We found it, in "Po".

This spot has been on my list even before my move from the south (and west)... and Saturday proved to be the day. It was a cold, blustery day, it was 5:30, and we had no reservation. Perfect.

First, I don't recommend this experience without a reservation, and I am learning fast that New Yorkers make reservations. There are a group of spots that just simply require them... if only because they have so few tables. Without them, surely a riot would ensue.

We showed up promptly at 5:30pm, steps off of the C train. "Po" is located on Cornelia Street in the West Village, arguably one of the most charming streets in the city. Snuggled between West 4th and Bleeker, the area is a gateway to just about any experience you can have in the Village... yet, secluded from Joe Tourist. Nice.

Not having a reservation landed us at the bar, a small, copper topped counter with just 3 stools. Behind the bar was a friendly face... as well as the insanely busy manager, shuffling diners into small spaces in a dining room that resembled the size of a dining car on a train.

As you may know, I'm a fan of bar dining... and often don't mind the bar as the bar can lead to an even better experience. We were offered a table about 5:45... but by that time were so settled into our spots, we decided to have the evening right there.

The food at "Po" reeks of Mario, even though he left the restaurant some time ago. It is now in the hands of the very capable and talented Lee McGrath, who has melted some trademark Mario Batali nuances into his own methods, resulting in a solid and exciting menu.

First, there is nothing ground-breaking here. But don't get me wrong, this is not your run-of-the-mill Italian restaurant. The dishes are robust, fragrant and fresh.... (hence the new addition of pappardelle with baby peas, mint and cream)... but you get the idea that many of the plates have resided on the menu for a long, long time. There is a twist of Babbo here, and hint of Lupa... and maybe a wink to Beppe... but somehow the menu speaks to you and says... "this is who we are, and look around, we're packed".

That said, there was no lack of excitement as we chose our dishes... and struggled with a menu that offered many tempting dishes to a first time diner.

One thing I love here is the playfulness of the kitchen at times, and how they get started. Diners at Po are treated to an "on the house" appetizer... 2 slightly burned rounds of french bread topped with a white bean relish. The result is fantastic. It just takes one bite to realize that the burned toast was intentional as you taste the balance of charred bread against the smooth, creaminess of the perfect white beans. It is a great way to wake up your mouth, and I could have eaten 6 of them. And maybe 4 more after that.

Onto the meal.

We started with 2 apps... a special, asparagus and sweet red peppers with shaved cheese in simple balsamic.... and the polpetta (homemade meatballs in tomato sauce).

The asparagus dish was straight forward and delish. The plate was left clean. The meatballs were spectacular. I have a soft spot in my heart for these, and the combination of veal, pork and lean beef was evident in this dish.... as the dish began to quickly vanish. The sauce was fresh and perfect, and the meal was on.

Instead of going the salad route, we opted for the bold choice of a primi and secondi. Warning, don't do this without a good if not great appetite.

Our pasta choices were the above mentioned Pappardelle, and a Gnocchi served in a light tomato compote. Both featured homemade everything, and it showed. The pasta was truly original and strangely delicious. The thick green sauce revealed small baby green peas and hints of fresh mint leaves... and was a dish you enjoyed in small bites. The homemade (jumbo) gnocchi was light and tasty as well... although smaller gnocchi will often lead to even fluffier bites. That said, both dishes were solid and good choices... although we believe we could have gone one of 5 directions and wound up at the same place.

The main courses were now coming and we were bordering on full... but it was nothing a sip of wine and a little conversation couldn't cure.

Our main courses were tried and true Po staples. The Guinea Hen with fregula pasta ( a dish that has made it's rounds across the city) and my Porcini Crusted Cod.

The hen was a boneless filet, seared and laid across a bed of tiny round pasta, bounding with flavor. The nice thing about hen is it's flavor... not too gamey if that isn't your thing. It is a nice, hearty dish and is accompanied by a surrounding group of flavors and textures that demonstrate to you why it has become a calling card of Po.

The cod is just plain fantastic. The porcini crust is rich in flavor, and unlike other attempts in lesser skilled kitchens, leaves the fish with a crispy outside... giving the dish great texture. The cod is fresh and mild, and the white beans and kale that accompany give the dish true balance. As full as I was, I finished it all... and was happy to oblige.

I was tempted to have a coffee as Po has a nice Italian espresso machine that kicks out Americanos and Cappucinos faster that lightning... but I just simply ran out of room. The dessert menu is tempting as well, with a variety of refreshing options, but again, no room.

I do tip my hat to Po for sticking with what works. I noticed on the salad options a dish that featured warm pancetta dressing... an option Lupa sadly just removed from their menu for the season (the amazing parsley and pancetta salad). Truth be told, it all works at Po... and the wink wink here is that they know it. If only they had 40 more seats.

I highly recommend this experience... and oh yea, bring cash or your Amex... because that's all they take, and there is no ATM in the back.

To celebrate the Tigers trip to the final four, I give you Tiger Jalapeno Cornbread !


21/2 cups yellow cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs
1 tbl. sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 tsps. baking powder
8 ozs. cream-style corn
1/2 cup chopped pimento
3/4 cup chopped jalapeño peppers
3/4 cup grated Cheddar cheese

1. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together except buttermilk and oil. Add buttermilk, stirring in, until you achieve a medium-thick batter.

2. Pour batter into a well-oiled cast-iron skillet and bake at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center.

Enjoy as a side dish with red beans, white beans, friend catfish, or you name it.