Bar Italia

| September 11, 2012

Rustic Northern Italian Warmth

After opening 23 Cipriani restaurants all over the world, Chef Denis Franceschini cooled his heels by launching his own charming and chic Mediterranean style restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side. Now, with two Manhattan locations, Bar Italia is a welcome stop for foodies spanning a wide demographic.

Elegantly located at 768 Madison Avenue at  66th Street, with a cozy al fresco dining area, Bar Italia is a home away from home. Greeted by a beautiful white marble bar and an equally beautiful front of house manager, Colleen Franceschini, this charming couple has created a contemporary, yet very warm space for a wide array of patrons. Dotted with splashes of color  to bring an excitement to the eye, a couple of communal tables  adding a friendly panache and organic-inspired light fixtures splaying the ceiling with a beautifully warm pattern, a tone of relaxation and well being has effectively been set. There is a real sense of hominess here—when arriving at Bar Italia, you truly feel welcome—this in itself has a tremendous appeal.

While reveling in our latest find we explored the cocktail list by imbibing the Negroni Shagliato (Prosecco, red vermouth and Campari) and the Verde Martini (Bombay Saphire, muddled cucumber and mint, St. Germain, lime and simple syrup). Both extraordinary in their preparation, we were now well-fortified for the adventure that lay before us.

We started off our extensive culinary tour of Northern Italy with the Bar Italia Salad (chopped romaine and arugula, onion, mozzarella di bufala, cherry tomatoes and red wine vinaigrette), the Tartare di Salmone (hand-cut fresh King salmon, avocado and white onion) and the Seared Ahi (sashimi-grade tuna served with braised fennel, balsamic and basil chiffonade). It was at this time that we also discovered the twenty or so wines available by the glass and began to pair accordingly. The well-trained hand of Chef Franceschini was immediately apparent, as all of the dishes that sat before us were extraordinary and flawlessly executed.

Next up was the Frito Misto (fried calamari and shrimp). A classic and simple dish, this was hands down not only the most delicious I’ve ever tasted, but the most feather-light. Truly remarkable and fresh, fresh, fresh! The polenta with sweet Italian sausage bar italiaand just a touch of tomato that stood to its left was also a graduate of the feather-light academy and one that could stand side-by-side with the best.

Moving on, we were presented with one of the days specials, a salad of beautifully marbleized Bresaola, baby arugula, truffle oil, shaved parmesan and Grana Padano. Grana Padano, one of the world’s first hard cheeses, was created nearly 1,000 years ago by the Cistercian monks of Chiaravalle Abbey and is one of my absolute favorites. At the suggestion of the house, we paired this masterpiece with what was to be my first Sardinian wine experience, one which was eye-opening and will have me further exploring this region.

Next up was the Risotto del Giorno. Served with grilled radicchio, this piece de resistance also enhanced with Grana Padana, as well as Taleggio was beyond words. Chef Franceschini shows a lot of self control by keeping the dishes simple and letting the flavors speak for themselves—a confidence that allows for an exceptional experience.

Working our way through the menu, the housemade gnocchi served in a butter and sage sauce and was also, extremely light—a pattern seemed to be developing here.  This was served alongside a Cavatelli with a veal ragout (a white Bolognese)—two classics delivered with an authentic expertise. To put a little more protein in our meal, we ended our impressive run of entrees with the Branzino del Mediterraneo al Forno (whole Mediterranean sea bass served with sautéed spinach)—simple, rustic, delicious.

To put an exclamation mark on this extrememly memorable feast, we put the sweet in our tooth with what else… a feather-light and extraordinary Tiramisu—the perfect ending to one of the best meals in recent memory.

One of the many remarkable things about this establishment is the extremely apparent presence of good cheer. Whether a couple of friends dining together, singles at the bar, or what seemed to be a romantic first date, everybody seemed genuinely happy to be here. Other than being a master in the kitchen, Chef Denis Franceschini moves around the floor greeting his guests like an epicurean ballerina. A commitment to making his patrons feel welcome that is in short supply these days. Bravo Bar Italia!