Dieci. On Tenth between First and Second, get it? Just like Otto on Eighth street and Fifth. At least that’s what I thought till I walked down the stairs and realized they may have meant the number of seats available at tables. This is a small room, the type you have to walk out of to change your mind.
Lane wanted to talk about food blogging, a subject I can drone about for hours but don’t find very interesting so I figured it might become more interesting for both of us if we were trying a new place. Being as Dieci had recently opened it seemed appropriate.
The left half of the room is comprised of nine seats at tightly packed tables with chairs on one side and a banquette on the other, the right half is a communal table at bar height with about a dozen stools. Three more stools at a window ledge round the dining room out. I chose to sit at the north end of the communal table which has a kind of Bar Jamon/ Boqueria potential if the right motley group fills this (small) room.
Perched on a stool awaiting Lane’s arrival I had time to look through the menus and form some opinions.
The wine list is brief and all Italian with the eccentricity of not necessarily mentioning producer or region, so there are offerings like CHARDONNAY ESTATE 2004, BASILICATA BIANCO 2005 and AMARONE DELLA VALPOLICELLA 97, 98, and 2000. The good news is the servers will provide the left out bits of info upon request and with only six whites and a dozen or so reds the whole exercise only takes a couple of minutes.
The list contains one other idiosyncrasy in the form of four Sakes, begging the question how well does a Junmai Daiginjyo pair to Prosciutto? I still don’t know the answer because one of the six offered whites was a Pra Soave Classico which I tend to enjoy as a better than average quaffing white and I hadn’t tried the 06 yet. It proved quite nice, citrus-y with good minerals but a little linear and less round than I am used to from Pra.
In the short time it took Lane to join me I had decided it best to try a couple of appetizers and if we liked them move on to a main. She arrived, agreed, and it went a little something like this:
Olives mix of niçoises, Sicilian, and green nyon: not particularly interesting, literally just a couple of olives in a small bowl, you could do this yourself at any gourmet store in town with the difference that you would have more olives for the money, but they would be in a larger plastic container.
Mortadella authentic bologna style ham, delicately flavored with black pepper and pistachio nuts: I love mortadella. It is what Oscar Meyer copies when they make sliced bologna, but authentically it is huge, like a foot around and four plus feet long, which in this restaurant would leave no room for your date. This was big for a salumi but still small by mortadella standards; smooth force meat cased with decent sized fat bits and pistachios, sliced thin and served plainly on a plate. Nice, especially with the wine, but this service stakes no claim on it. The last place I can remember that offered mortadella was Otto at their ill-fated breakfast. By serving a small sandwich with salsa verde, fresh horseradish, or Dijon mustard they made it theirs. As served here, anyone with a source for imported meat and a slicer can recreate this dish perfectly.
Genoa Salami: A rather wide-gauged, nicely spiced sausage with a pretty even split of fat and meat. This was made unique by being shaved incredibly thin. Usually samplings of meat favoring a rougher grind like this I have had are sliced more thickly. As thin as this was, none of the coarseness was evident making it interesting as unique if not classic.
Octopus Salad served with olives, dried tomatoes, celery and parsley: the small tentacles of small octopuses cooked with moist heat, properly both chewy and tender were served as a cold salad dressed in what I assume is a lemon agromatto because the dish had more a pervasive lemon aroma than and citric zing. Well conceived and executed, but definitely the smallest part of a small night.
From Main we had Steamed New Zealand Mussels served with cherry tomatoes, broccoli rabe and a saffron blue crab broth: The meats of the green lip mussels were nicely plump but slightly dry, more as if they had been previously frozen than overcooked. They benefited from a dunking in the aromatic brackish broth laced with saffron and slightly bitter notes from the rabe. Fine as a standalone dish but at odds with our wine, pulling astringent qualities out of the acids.
To finish we tried five cheeses which were simply accompanied by raisin toast. Far too cold for fair assessment but what seemed like it would have been a good sampling of some Italian types if properly served.
Walking in all I knew was that this was meant to be an Italian place with a Japanese owner, chef and management. As far as I could see, and it is easy to see everything from the front door (the place is small), the management part of the story was true. The food, however, is not Italian so much as the derivative Southern European cuisine offered around New York. It feels as if the chef has taken his favorite flavors from restaurants called Mediterranean (or whatever we are currently calling the cuisines that use olive oil as their primary lipid) and decided they are all Italian. Those mussels were a nice dish but came more by way of Brussels than Italy, a fact that distracted me from simply appreciating them as well made or not.
At this point a large portion of New Yorkers are pretty Italian fluent; seldom do people insist baked manigott (sic) is authentic anymore. Part of this development has been a sense of what really is eaten by Italians in Italy and none of these offerings are that. The truth is, held up to the Italian light Dieci fails under scrutiny, but this should be irrelevant and only matters when the restaurant identifies itself as Italian. Considered as nothing more than a good little place for a bite, it is quite nice.
The room and the food seem best suited to fueling a community feeling amongst the right small crowd rather than cuisine contemplation by foodies. In the long run, I suspect Dieci will do best by resisting the Italian brand and becoming known simply for its good chef interpreting his favorite flavors on small plates, in a small place, with a small wine list, at smallish prices.