After a full day of hitting “redial” on my work phone, I managed to get through to Maialino and made a reservation for Saturday night. The reservation might have been at 9:45 pm, but I considered that early for Danny Meyer’s new Roman trattoria-inspired restaurant in the Gramercy Park Hotel…on opening weekend no less.
We got there early (9:15 pm) just in case they had some openings/cancellations (wishful thinking). We were greeted warmly by the hostess, who said it “might be a little while,” so we stood at the bar and observed. There was a “salumi” and cheese station on one side of the restaurant (complete with meat slicer), and a bread, pastries, and coffee station on the other. The crowd looked happy; wine glasses were full and no one looked like they were in a rush. Case and point: two women were at the bar island when we arrived, they were standing and eating, and by the time we left at 11:30 they were still there. Standing for two hours through an entire meal?? That’s what I call dedication. In terms of design, I really liked the layout of Maialino, but if I had one gripe it would be this: coed bathrooms. Unnecessary.
Bread, pastries and coffee station
We were seated at 10 pm (15 mins after reservation time – not bad for opening weekend), and our waiter, Joe, came over with the menus. I had been watching the waitstaff pass by me with assorted meats and cheeses for 45 minutes, so I knew I wanted to partake in that magic. We ordered the salumi rosa, and for cheese I decided on gorgonzola and parmigiano reggiano. I figured I got all the bases (and textures) covered: salty and chewy, creamy and smooth, nutty and hard. The salumi was so good, you could tell it was freshly sliced because it still had that sheen from the natural fats and oils. Sometimes when you get meats in a restaurant they are already sliced so they dry out – not the case here. I took a piece of fresh Italian bread and topped it with the salumi and a piece of parmigiano – made myself a little canape. Pretty soon, that entire plate was gone.
For entrees, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted the signature dish (Malfatti Maialino) which was malfatti pasta with suckling pig and arugula, or the Raviolo al Uovo – ravioli with egg yolk, potato and ricotta. How do you choose between those two options? Well, you don’t. I ordered both. Joe came over two minutes later with a look on his face that could only mean bad news: “it breaks my heart to do this,” he says…and I knew immediately…”we’re out of the malfatti.” Nooo!! So, I stuck with the raviolo, which was more than fine, but I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed about the malfatti.
The service was good, if not a little slow for my taste. I guess I’m so used to being rushed through a meal that I feel forgotten when the waiter doesn’t show up every 5 minutes to ask if I need something. Just as I was making this point in my head, a random waiter shows up with a pasta dish with some lovely greens on top…that I didn’t order. I was starting to recind my previous thought about the service, then the random waiter sees the confusion on my face and tells me that it’s the Malfatti Maialino!! Apparently the chef had a small extra stash of the malfatti and the pork, so he put together a little dish for me! What joy!! Joe came over and said “I knew about it for a while but I wanted to keep it a surprise!” Joe = Santa. That’s what I call service.
Now I had my two pastas: one big raviolo and the malfatti dish was pretty close to a full-sized portion from what the waiters told me. I tried the malfatti first, and it was so good. It was a beautiful dish too, with the pale pasta and the bright greens on top and a sprinkling of parmigiano. When you mixed it around, the arugula wilted into the sauce. I took a bite with everything: pasta, pork, arugula and cheese. The pork was so tender and intense-flavored compared to regular pork, it really stood out against the fresh pasta and bitter greens, but it all came together in one excellent dish. I was beyond happy that they managed to scrounge some together for me. The raviolo was amazing too – though you could tell this was a dish that is meant to appeal to the eyes as well as the stomach. When you cut into the giant raviolo, the yolk leaks out and creates a delicious sauce with the butter and cheese. Only problem? There was just ONE raviolo. I could have easily eaten two or three of them. In fact, if I had any issues with the food, it would be the portion sizes. They were a little small for me. We had salumi, cheese, a little bit of Italian bread (with olive oil), and I had TWO pastas. After all that, I felt full but not stuffed. From hearing that amount of food, you would think I wouldn’t have room for dessert. Well like I implied, you would be wrong.
The dessert was good, but not great. We got two: pine nut tart and apple cake. The apple cake was really nice – fluffy, with a hint of cinnamon and a little drizzle of real icing. The pine nut tart was ok, I wasn’t thrilled with it. It had a creamy, custard-type filling with pine nuts and powdered sugar on top, and was not very sweet at all. Maybe I just prefer chocolate or gelato for dessert, but either way it didn’t move me. The espresso was interesting too, like nothing I had ever tasted. It was VERY strong and had a lemony taste to it. Joe asked me what I thought of it, which was strange, because how often does a waiter ask you how the coffee was? So I said, “it’s good, but there’s something different – almost like they let the lemon peel steep in it.” And he said he thought the same thing. They have it shipped from a coffee supplier in California and it’s supposed to have this semi-bitter, lemony flavor to it. Definitely a taste that wouldn’t appeal to everyone, because I like my coffee strong, but that literally made my mouth pucker.
I guess you can call it yet another success for Danny Meyer. Was it the best Italian meal I’ve ever had? No, but it was very good. All around us people were raving about the food, and the crowd was steady all night long. It has that ambiance that makes you want to hang out and just eat and talk for a long time. Maybe that’s why their portions are smaller and lighter, so you can keep drinking and eating with good company. Not a bad idea. As a true, hectic New Yorker, I can say that we definitely don’t do enough of that. However, there are times when I just want a hearty Italian meal, and I don’t think Maialino was intended for that. I would go back for certain dishes, but I don’t know that I would go back starving. But, you know what they say: “when in Rome…”
Maialino2 Lexington Ave (at 21st St.), 212-777-2410