Tiella Brings Cast Iron Neapolitan Cooking to the UES

Tiella is located at 1109 First Avenue between 60th and 61st Streets on the Upper East Side, and is open for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 to11 PM, on Sunday from 5 to 10 PM and for lunch Monday-Saturday 12-3PM. For reservations, call 212-588-0100 or visit http://tiellanyc.com/.

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Neapolitan Joys and a Class Act at Tiella 

            Tiella. A narrow sliver of the Upper East Side with polished wood tables, a tin ceiling, assorted plants and endless charm is a real discovery. The restaurant is named for the cast iron pans that often yield Napoli’s most prized culinary offerings. Unique, creative, and always artfully presented, Tiella’s food is the perfect middle ground between the popular and addicting Neapolitan pizza we’ve come to love and the sophisticated cooking from Napoli we’re bound to fall for.

            There’s more to Neapolitan food than great pizza, and out to prove it to New Yorkers is Peppe Castellano, Executive Chef of Manhattan newcomer, Castellano may be best known for his award-winning restaurant Gran Gusto in Cambridge, MA, where he serves artisanal pizzas with highbrow toppings to throngs of hungry Bostonians, but his career has seen him through many famed kitchens in both Italy and New York. As a young protégé, he met Tiella’s front-of-house authority and co-owner Mario Coppola, who has a winning smile and a welcoming personality.

            Backstage, in the kitchen, things are known to get quite heated: the city’s smallest wood burning oven, a custom-creation for Castellano’s slender space, reaches up to 900 degrees and is responsible for cooking a majority of Tiella’s signature dishes.

            Start with a basket of home-baked bread—each bite is best served when dipped into the accompanying Novello oil, a first-press olive oil from Calabria with an intensely grassy, peppery kick that’s the center of many culinary rituals in Italy. A toast over Prosecco “Vazzola” from Conegliano, Italy’s most prosecco-forward region, is sure to open the appetite further. (or enjoy a stronger libation; there is a full bar). Pair it with an appetizer of stracciatella: the ultra-supple mozzarella look-alike from Puglia gets good company from paper-thin sliced speck and arugula. Together, the cheese and meat seem to engage in conversation, calling out each other’s salty, smoky richness.

           Follow through with salmone, a similar presentation with wildly different flavors. The star ingredient, salmon carpaccio, home-cured for 48 hours in a salt, pepper, sugar and clove mixture, gets wrapped delicately around a fennel and citrus salad dressed in a bright lemon-orange dressing, the perfect counterpoint to the silky, briny fish. Prefer something on the vegetarian side? The sformatino, an elegant spinach flan coated in a mild and sweet gorgonzola sauce, makes for a beautiful option, two brightly green mezzalunas that melt richly on the tongue.

Tiellas, the namesake dishes from the wood-burning oven, make a perfect second course option. They’re most comparable to a personal pizza, kicked up a few notches. The custom-blended dough—not a traditional pizza dough—is layered with ingredients like San Daniele prosciutto and foie gras or caprino goat cheese and bottarga. Order the latter with a glass of Fiano “Donnaluna,” a medium, full-bodied white from Salerno with minerality from nearby Vesuvius—it pairs perfectly with the subtly tart goat cheese and decadent roe, whose curiously playful interaction makes you wonder why most Italians are so intent to keep fish and cheese apart.

           Perhaps Castellano’s talents are best evidenced in his pasta work, where the sauces he creates take a cue from his days as an entremetier. His Spaghetti Chitarra, for instance, twists the typical Spaghetti Vongole by harmoniously marrying clam and zucchini sauces—an inspiration taken from a town outside Sorrento called Nerano. Crunchy, cheesy strips of zucchini add texture to a dish that’s otherwise smooth and creamy; the clams’ natural oceanic flavor is pure and clean, emphasized by a small punch of chili.Absolutely one of Manhattan’s most delectable pasta creations! Scialatielli dressed in smoked mozzarella and eggplant is another specialty: the hard-to-find pasta is made with milk and hand cut into its signature curly shape.

           Regardless, a real must-try is the Risotto All’Aragosta, a perfectly executed risotto with lobster and pink grapefruit. The flavors are unusual but exceptional, each one sharply defined, clearly present in each bite, but never overpowering—the sweetness of lobster and grapefruit play down the gentle aromatics of dill.

           Save space for entrees, which also bear the hallmark of the signature oven in the back. Branzino comes over a sweet and sour eggplant marinated in 25-year-aged balsamic, a beautiful marriage of subtle and bold flavors. Oregano and thyme are leading flavors on the herb-crusted Agnello, or rack of lamb—a tender and moist endeavor served with a delicately dressed broccoli rabe, delicious in its freshness and simplicity. Pair it with a beautiful glass of Barbera d’Asti from the Barolo region—its medium body lends itself well to the simple but nuanced preparations.

           Throughout the meal, the wine program, designed by Coppola after years of extensive research and practice, will yield many surprises—his emphasis is on gems like the Fiano that are under-explored and hard to find in the city. Many of those hail from the south of Italy, and act as alternatives to the tried-and-true varietals that are much more common.There are about 14 wine priced at under $50 , including the captivating 100% Petit Verdot, “Castale del Giglio” 2006 ($44). Medium bodied, aromatic and superb with food, we highly recommend it.

           Desserts are a high point. All imported gelati are as good as it gets (especially the hazelnut)*. Or  sip on limoncello: the Italian liquor only emphasizes the delicate flavors in the Delizia al Limone, a Sorrento classic made of limoncello spiked sponge cake filled with lemon-scented cream. Tiramisu is made with Sambuca-soaked Savoiardi and lots of love (it shows), while a Pistachio Caprese takes flourless chocolate cake to a more mellow place, employing almond flour for a nutty, aromatic quality that makes it the perfect ending to a decadent meal.

Service is surprisingly polished at Tiella and in an area of town with loads of Italian restaurants that pale by comparison, Tiella fires up the UES with taste and talent, and is a must try

* Meno Diciotto, the BEST Italian gelato, is imported at 18 degrees below (Celsius), & is served at Tiella, 1109 First Ave. 212-588-0100

Copyright 2010 by Punch In International. All Rights Reserved.

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