Strolling into Cucina di Pesce, is like stepping back in time. The rich décor of turquoise accented walls, chocolate-brown hardwood floors, an eclectic variety of antiques and sculptures, and a charm that makes you feel like you strolled off a cobblestone street in Italy, gives you the feeling of being welcomed home.
The extremely colorful history that whispers from these walls, adds to the romance and magic of what was to be a stellar dining experience. Back in the 1920′s and 30′s this spot was a casino run by Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Later, it became a social club called the Stage Bar, run by Vincent Ciraulo, A.K.A. “Jimmy Second Avenue” of the Genovese family. But it wasn’t this that left the lasting impression—it was most definitely the food.
With a menu that is as kind to your wallet as your pallete, it begs the question, how do they do it? High quality and extremely fresh products, most of which are imported from Italy or locally sourced, graced each and every dish coming out of the kitchen.
Keeping in line with its moniker, we thought we’d stay focused on what they are known for, fish. We started off our feast of the sea with the Cold Seafood Antipasto (Marinated Scallops, Shrimp, Calamari and Mussels on a Bed of Field Greens), the Baked Clams (1/2 Dozen on the Half Shell) and the special appetizer, Smoked Salmon Wrapped Asparagus (drizzled with a housemade pesto). Let’s say this; the freshness of these dishes was akin to dining seaside in a fishing village along the Amalfi Coast—brilliant! The calamari was so extraordinarily tasty that we decided to explore a couple of other preparations and dove into the Grilled Calamari (Avocado, Tomato, Cilantro and Scallions in a Lemon and Olive Oil Dressing) and the Fried Calamari (With a side of Spicy Marinara).
Alongside these delicious appetizers was a basket of some of the finest bread that I have enjoyed in quite some time. Sourced from a local bakery, it is served with a bowl of hummous-type dip prepared with white and garbanzo beans, harissa, garlic and olive oil. Harissa has become extremely popular lately and is showing up in many dishes. It is a Tunisian hot chili sauce commonly eaten in North Africa whose main ingredients are piri piri (type of chili pepper), serrano peppers and spices such as garlic paste, coriander, red chili powder, caraway and olive oil. In this instance, along with an incredible bottle of Valpolicella Ripasso, it could have kept us busy quite for some time.
Next up was the Whole Branzino (served with a delicate white wine, butter and caper sauce for dipping) and the special, a Pan-Seared Salmon served atop a bed of rosemary risotto and draped with some thinly sliced and sautéed portabellas. Both exquisite, the latter transported me to a Tuscan farmhouse. There is something to be said about food that creates imagery. This, for me, is the next level.
Prior to venturing back out onto the streets of NYC’s East Village, we finished our decadent feast with the Orange Crème Brulee, the imported Fruity Debosko and a cup of finely brewed espresso. Favoloso!
The aptly named Cucina Di Pesce is a place that has already earned a place on my list of neighborhood favorites. Overseen by the charismatic Nick Alija, seemingly the heartbeat and clearly the General Manager of this establishment, your enjoyment is handled with a grace that only many years of experience can bring. One thing is for sure, after hearing about the salmon celebration in May, highlighting different appetizers and entrees being presented on a daily basis, I’ll see you there!