Cheap pasta for fancy palates: An unpretentious pan-Italian bright spot in the Upper West Side's culinary dead zone
Despite its central location, the stretch of Broadway between West 96th and West 100th Streets on the Upper West Side is more or less a cultural and culinary dead zone. For fine dining there are two choices: the country-French Alouette or the pan-Italian restaurant Regional.
Walking the west side of Broadway you might fail to notice Regional, if it didn't happen to be your destination. Its pointedly austere and somewhat rusty facade is painted a chocolate brown, projecting a matching wind shelter that encroaches only slightly onto the sidewalk (in cooler months), and fronted by large floor-to-ceiling windows and an industrial-cast sign stating the restaurant's name, street number (2607) and, in all lowercase, its theme: "italian."
The interior decor is open and functional: a minimalist blend of Italian countryside rusticity and New York City modernity.
The premise of Regional is summed up neatly by its name: The menu features an assortment of dishes influenced by various regions of Italy, from Valle D'Aosta to Sicily. From salads to cheeses to entrees to desserts, each menu item is clearly notated with its specific place of origin.
The owners are husband and wife Dario and Jody Arenella, along with Dario's brother Pierpaolo Arenella. It's the same team that owns La Giara in Murray Hill, and La Giocanda in Midtown East. The brothers, who are natives of Salerno, Italy, have made an impression on Manhattan diners by creating establishments that offer upmarket experiences while stressing the simplicity of Italian cooking.
Without question, though, the reason their restaurants are doing well is simply that the food is good. The entrees reside somewhere between Americanized Italian and Italian Italian, and they never overreach. An understanding that the difference between the two has much more to do with style than substance, and the willingness to be honest about it, sets Regional apart from a number of other like-minded restaurants that strain to distinguish themselves.
Chef Andrew Deuel (formerly of the Rainbow Room and Le Cirque 2000) was educated at the New England Culinary Institute and the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners. He seems to have that rare ability to create dishes which are at once both heavy and light, robust and delicate, rich and refined. His creations arouse the soul without encumbering the body, due in large part to the fact that he relies on high-quality ingredients. In other words, nothing at regional seems oily, greasy or overwrought with butter (a cheating technique employed by many a lesser chef).
On weekends, Regional features a menu that's an adventurous departure from the weekday version. Assisted by an all-you-can-drink supply of Mimosas and Bloody Marys, Saturday and Sunday brunches have for a long time been its biggest and most chaotic hit.
Lately, it has drawn crowds with a Monday-night special that discounts the eclectic array of pastas offered on the regular dinner menu to nine dollars (the pasta dishes normally range from $14 to $16), creating a happening to look forward to on an often-monotonous evening of the week. This event is called, appropriately enough, "Pasta Night."
Pasta Night has begun to attract a consistent neighborhood following that has poured over into the subsequent days of the week, and into the non-pasta portions of the menu.
The salads, for example, are all extraordinarily fresh and flavorful.
The Pomodoro sulla rughetta, with ripe tomato and wild arugula in a balsamic vinaigrette, is particularly delicious. The Mele e ricotta campana, with seasonal apples, bufala milk ricotta and arugula in a lemon-and-olive-oil condiment is not as complicated as it sounds. The ingredients go together seamlessly. The Insalata di carciofi fritti, consisting of fried artichokes with dry ricotta cheese over wild arugula and cherry tomato, is perfect, and the class of the salad selection. The artichokes are inventive without seeming gimmicky, and add a crunchy thrill to the salad's otherwise supple composition.
The Rapa rosse e gorgonzola, featuring red beets, mesclun greens and gorgonzola cheese, is a playful offering. The beets are refreshingly crisp and understated, neither too sweet nor too tart. And the gorgonzola accents appropriately without dominating.
Other options include the time-honored Mozzarella di bufala e pomodoro, with bufala milk mozzarella, vine tomato and basil, and the concisely proportioned Formaggio di capra e spinaci, which includes spinach, endive and goat cheese with extra virgin olive oil. Neither will disappoint.
Most of the appetizers come with a small side salad of roquette arugula and vinaigrette. The Brasato di Bue al Vino Rosso (from Piemonte) is a small portion of short ribs braised in red wine sauce and fried polenta tender enough to eat without chewing. It's as filling and eventful as an entree, and complimented well by cubed potatoes that are airy and spicy.
The Fritto Misto (from Campania) is an assortment of fried fish and seafood that may just feature the most moist and tender calamari in New York.
The Polpette Infilzate (from Sicilia) is a plate of skewered veal meatballs in parsley and oregano sauce. The meatballs are authentic Italian polpette, more similar to what Americans call "Italian sausage" than what we imagine when we think of red-sauce meatballs. They are not immersed in sauce at all, but instead are intensely spiced and stacked on a skewer, interspersed with croutons.
Skip the Carciofi Ammuddicati (from Calabria), a baked artichoke stuffed with olives, capers and smoked mozzarella, which is dry and uneventful.
The staples of the pasta menu are the items that involve various ragú sauces. The heaviest of these dishes is the Fettuccine alla Vaccinara (from Lazio), a veritable stew of braised oxtail meat with fettuccine noodles that is at once lean and hearty, with an old-world flavor that is simple and timeless.
A similar, slightly less robust alternative is the Strozzapreti al ragú di Vitello (from Emilia Romagna), a twisted pasta in a veal ragú.
For diners with more delicate sensibilities, the Fettuccine Verdi con Ragú di Maiale (from Abruzzi), a spinach fettuccine in a pork ragú, is a standout. It's an elaborate combination of flavors with a light and creamy sauce that comes close to excess without going over the line.
One departure from its sister ragú dishes, the Gnocci sardi al sugo di cinghiale (from Sardegna), features flour dumplings in a wild boar ragú. The boar is slightly gamey, but in a good way—it doesn't linger on the palate. The consistencies of the dumplings and the meat come together in a basic red sauce.
A less inventive alternative is a more traditional Gnocchi alla Bolognese (from Emilia Romagna), which marries potato dumplings with a beef ragú.
The Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa e Salsiccia (from Puglia) is a lighter alternative for meat-lovers. It is beautifully simple, with a clean taste and an unexpected, but not intrusive, kick. As easy as this dish may seem to prepare, Deuel succeeds here where so many other chefs fail, and defies expectations without subverting the simple, winning premise of the recipe.
The exquisite Vincisgrassi (from Marche) is the star of the pasta menu. The lasagna is made of a refined layering of béchamel, bolognese and parmigiano of a consistency delicate enough to melt in your mouth. The layers of pasta are tender and of perfect texture, and slightly crunchy at the ends. The ingredients are perfectly proportioned and not overdone, and the meat is lean and spicy with a hint of red sauce and a gossamer layer of cheese that provides perfect balance.
If the Lasagna is the leading man of the pasta menu, the Maccheroni con Salsa di Melenzane e Pomodori (from Sicialia) is its heroine. Eggplant is a notoriously difficult ingredient, and Deuel shows here that he's mastered it. Its delicate consistency lacks the often metallic taste found in similar dishes in inferior Italian places, and contrasts gracefully with the broad, al dente, rigatoni noodles. They swim together in a generous sea of traditional tomato sauce. The medley is topped off with a thickly shredded, slightly melted ricotta cheese that holds it all together.
The Ravioli con Fonduta al Formaggio (from Val d'Aosta) is an elegant, if unadventurous, alternative to the other pasta dishes on the menu. The al dente raviolis are cooked just right, and lie in a shallow fondue of truffle butter, the use of which in place of standard cream butter is unexpected and exciting.
From the sea, the Linguini alle vongole (from Campania) is a classic linguini with clams. The cherry tomatoes are cooked just right, firm while tender, and add an appropriate accent to a white sauce that would seem a bit too ordinary without them. The bygone Spaghettini ai Frutti di Mare (from Umbria), an archetypical thin spaghetti in a heavier tomato sauce with squid, shrimp and mussels, was an outstanding alternative.
Also included among the pasta selections is a Risotto con osso buco (from Lombardia), a saffron risotto with veal shank which is very good, but seems out of place in the pasta section of the menu.
If Regional has a weakness, it is the service. While friendly and hard working, the waitstaff often seem disorganized and confused, with roles not clearly defined. The fastidious group of bussers are often there to pick up the slack, and usually succeed in delivering the food to the tables in a timely manner, though on occasion it can arrive at a temperature that one suspects is slightly lower than what the chef intended. What Regional really needs to do is streamline to a system of service appropriate to a neighborhood eatery rather than a more upscale white-tablecloth establishment.
To be clear, this is not a big deal: These are logistical issues that the Arenella family should be able to work out as they continue to capitalize on a lack of immediate competition.
All considered, Regional's quality of food and earnestness of vision far outweigh the growing pains.