Standing around the wine shop equivalent of the water cooler the other day — the weekend tasting bar, in other words — the converstation turned to Italian restaurants. Old-line, Italian-American restaurants, to be specific, for which “he makes a good red sauce” was the highest form of praise. As it should be.
Massimo is not a red-sauce kinda restaurateur, despite the raves that a neighboring diner gave his ragu bolognese (which is as much about carrots and cream as it is tomato) on a recent evening. In fact, many diners used to the old red-sauce, red-carpet approach will doubtless be confused by a menu that often seems as French, or simply global contemporary, as it does Italian. Rest assured that the basics — perfect products minimally treated — are all there. And there is no better place to start than with the calamaretti alla griglia. These baby squid (we tend to tolerate them much better when they’re called calamari) have been quickly grilled, dressed with a simple lemon-oil vinaigrette and modestly plated with a little grated carrot and shredded lettuce. Paradiso. You want nothing more done to them.
Less would be more with the Carpaccio Cipriani. However traditional the thinly sliced celery may be, it got in the way of the even more thinly sliced raw beef. The shingles of shaved parmigiano atop the leaves of beef were also less helpful than we might have imagined, and though this may be a case of selective memory, my recollections of the carpaccio in Massimo’s old digs are of a much simpler product. I also recall the antipasto dal buffet as more inventive than the plate we were recently served in the restaurant’s elegant, new surroundings. Perhaps it was a luck-of-the-draw situation (our ever-so-attentive waiter made the selection), but only the spiced olives and the eggplant rolled around a mascarpone-like filling had any special appeal. Bring back the Tuscan beans!
Trying to be more Italian than even the Italians are likely to be these days, we ordered a pasta for sharing before the secondi (entrées). Massimo’s lilting tagliolini al limone con Parma — thin pasta in a light and lemony cream sauce with Parma ham — proved the perfect intermezzo in the perfect amount. Though we were prepared to pass around a plate, the kitchen thoughtfully split the order three ways, draping each with a thin sheet of cured ham. The pasta was also exceptionally good with a bottle of Vernaccia Palagetto from Massimo’s encyclopedic Italian wine list. Where the vernaccia sported citrus and almond qualities, the wine chosen for the entrées, a Rosso di Montalcino Castiglion del Bosco, boasted hints of leather and tar beneath its bright fruit. (Yes, these are actually desirable qualities.)
Fortunately, at least one diner had the foresight to save a little of the vernaccia for the risotto del giorno; this time the luck of the draw was with us. Scallops and asparagus were the day’s special ingredients, and the combination was ethereal. Mindful of the scene in Big Night where the diner can’t find any seafood in her risotto, the scallops almost melt into rice that’s both creamy and al-dente at once. Masterful stuff from a kitchen that has retained two chefs from the old location, while adding two new ones to the pot.
Massimo would likely admit, if pressed, that revolving chefs were a problem in the old days — despite frequent flashes of brilliance. That the kitchen seems to have settled down to a high level of everyday competence is made clear by a classic dish such as saltimbocca alla romana — a plate that fairly shouts Rome despite alleged origins in Brescia. The thin medallions of veal with fresh sage and parma ham can be presented two ways, rolled or flat, in a sauce that may or may not contain white wine. Massimo opts for the simpler, flat presentation and the more complex wine treatment with results that are the best of all possible worlds; fresh sage was never shown to better advantage.
Invention, not tradition, seems to take over in one of the restaurant’s global-sounding entrées, the duck breast sauteed in balsamic sauce. Considered separately, the duck (cooked to a perfect medium rare) and the sauce (sweet and tangy all at once) are both exemplary. Put together, these ducks are still swimming — there’s way too much of the hardly sotto voce sauce. Pardon the presumption, but reduce and drizzle would be one possible approach.
A crême brulée alla veneziana with poppy seeds and a semifreddo described as all’Amaretto con salsa zafferano caught our collective eyes at dessert time. Kudos to the crême; it was impeccable. The semifreddo (a form of “half-frozen” ice cream) was good, too, just a little confusing. The Amaretto flavor was actually in the poundcake/ladyfinger foundation. The saffron, far from being a sauce, had infused the ice cream; only in a Persian place would you otherwise find such striking flavor. And the ice cream, for that matter, had a curiously tight, meringue-like texture. (Having struggled to make an acceptable hazelnut version recently, I’m especially sensitive to texture.) But these points are all academic. I’d order this again and get on with life.
Or just get on into Massimo’s testa rossa red bar. With its racy Ferrari color and live music by either Beverly Houston or the Mo-dels, the newly expanded, two-level space is a be-seen scene. Massimo may not run a red-sauce palace, but the get-sauced bar is a red rumpus room to be reckoned with. Assuming you have a designated driver, of course.•