NEW YORK CORNER
La Masseria Triumphs
by John Mariani
After four years, La Masseria has emerged as one of New York's very finest Italian ristoranti. Not that it wasn't the day it opened, in 2004, when I picked it as one of the best new restaurants of that year in America. But quietly, devoted to its faithful clientele and each day introducing more and more signature dishes and regionality, La Masseria now ranks at the very top rank of la cucina Italiana new york--and given the presence of such great examples as Felidia, San Pietro, Il Posto, Convivio, Scarpetta, and Fiamma--along with any number of wonderful trattorias,it is testament to the extraordinary, day-to-day devotion of owners Giuseppe "Peppe" Iuele and Enzo Ruggiero with chef-partner Giuseppe Coladonato.
La Masseria (which means "the farmhouse") is a beautiful restaurant in the Theater District done in a winning combination of arched ceilings, farm utensils, photos and artwork, aged wood, and the modernity of iron sconces, stonework, and wine bins, all designed by Libby Langdon. To the front is a good bar, windows overlook the street, and the main dining room leads to a smaller party room. Tables are well set and stemware of fine quality. The noise level is entirely civilized for good conversation. The service staff is professional and friendly, knowledgeable and always helpful, never intrusive but always there at a nod, led with affable spirit by Peppe and Enzo, boyhood friends from Capri. The winelist gets stronger every year but not top-loaded with impossibly priced rarities (though they have some); instead there is plenty of good wine under $50 a bottle.
The best way to begin here is to share a plate of antipasti--oozing buffalo mozzarella, slices of salumi, and sliced cheeses, all at the right temperature--and the best fried strips of zucchini in town, a big mound of greaseless, thin slivers you pop in your mouth. A heftier starter is a portion of the freshly made meatballs with tomato sauce, an item everybody loves and one that I'm seeing showing up in the trendier new Italian spots around NYC now.
One of many stand-out farinaceous dishes at La Masseria is the granotto --a Pugliese grain cooked till tender like risotto and sharing the plate with a lush seafood sauce, mussels, and white beans--a triumph of home-style Italian cooking! The fat bucatini strands of pasta are mixed with "vecchia Roma" sauce of onions, pecorino, and bacon, while fresh orrechiette alla barese comes with wonderfully bitter-salty broccoli di rabe and Italian sausage. The owners' Caprese heritage is revealed in the raviolini (little ravioli) with caciotta cheese and a light tomato sauce--as good as any I've had along the Amalfi coast--while potato gnocchi (a little too soft that night) is dressed in a rich sauce of taleggio cheese and radicchio.
For main courses you may go as simply as an impeccably grilled Mediterranean fish glossed with olive oil and lemon or the roast rabbit alla caprese with herbs and wine sauce. One of the very best renderings of veal alla milanese --the pounded veal chop lightly seasoned and perfectly sautéed to a crisp exterior and succulent interior--is the one done at La Masseria, and it comes with an arugula and tomato salad. A massive veal T-bone may also be enjoyed, cooked just the pint where the meat exudes all its flavor. Even richer but not overly lavish is a nicely seared filet mignon topped with fontina cheese and shavings of truffles in a reduction of red wine.
La Masseria's desserts are not out of the ordinary in concept but their resolution puts to shame all those leaden versions of ricotta cheesecake and tiramisù elsewhere, and their warm apple tart with raspberry sauce and vanilla ice cream is one to fight over at the table.
There was a time when I insisted that Italian food in this country cannot be made as well as in the regions of Italy where dishes have been based on the best local ingredients. The availability of those same fine ingredients have made the excellence of La Masseria possible, and, as my most recent dinner there proved, the dedication of the owners and chef makes there food as food as any in Campania, Puglia, or Rome right now. NYC is very lucky to have La Masseria.
La Masseria is open daily for lunch and dinner, and it's a great choice for pre-theater dinner. At dinner antipasti run $8.50-$18.50, pastas (full portions) $15-$28.50, and main courses $17.50-$38.50.
Dig in at New Digs
You'll swear you're breathing fresh air right off Times Square at this new farmhouse-style Italian Spot. The owners-two of whom hail from Capri and the third, executive chef Pino Coladonato, formerly of Sette Mezzo-have created a rustic retreat for fans of hearty food from the mother country. Coladonato turns out satisfying seafood starters; al dente pastas like fettucine with lobster and light tomato sauce; and wonderful mains such as roasted fillet of pork with wild mushrooms and gilled Meditterranean sea bream.
Time Out New York
A midtown restaurant is the last place you'd expect to conjure up thoughts of rural life, but Theater District newcomer La Masseria does just that. The white-tablecloth eatery-whose name means "medieval manor farm" in Italian-is as rustic inside as the name suggests: wooden ceiling beams, stone archways, antique farming tools. IF you don't pick ip the countryside cues from the decór, the hearty dishes and friendly servers will bring you down to earth. Of note: creamy polenta with a four-cheese sauce; soft, black-truffle-topped gnocchi; and an antipasto of lean prosciutto and speck served with seasonal figs.
The Menu Pages
Gem in Midtown
"Who would have thought within the grey mass area of midtown an elegant italian restaurant would be situated nicely tucked away on 48th St. The interior is definitely elegant and classy, definitely an older crowd. Portions are definitely generous, elegantly prepared, freshly seasoned. Definitely worth a second trip. Skip all the rambunctious midtown eateries and settle for some serious cuisine."
New York Metro
"In a town where Italian restaurants blend together like so much Sunday sauce, you need a gimmick. In this case, it's a design in keeping with the theater-district locale: a rustic Puglian farmhouse, stone walls, ceiling beams, and all. The wide-ranging menu integrates Italian imports like burrata and bottarga, finds compelling uses for the region's abundance of beans, and gets creative with dishes like limoncello-flavored tiramisu."
"A sexy and romantic new Italian restaurant with the look of a villa on the Italian countryside. Great dinner with experienced and knowledgeable servers. Gnocchi tossed in a black-truffle sauce not even in Italy are they this good! Baby grilled octopusy, cuttlefish and broccoli over a fava bean puree, is nice and tasty yet light. In a town full of Italian Restaurants its refreshing to find one that serves such authentic Italian cuisine."
New York Business
"Farming Manhattan: La Masseria, at 235 W. 48th St., is the new food "farmhouse" being worked by three veterans of Italian eateries here-Peppe Iuele, Enzo Ruggiero and chef Pino Coladonato."
"This is an extremely well located restaurant when one is going to the theatre. The food is good, simply prepared and well-seasoned. The Service is swift and intelligent."
New York Times - Review
ONLY a small minority of restaurants exert a pull so strong that you go to them without much consideration for their location, their type of cuisine or the nuances of their ambience. The vast majority survive because they meet a specific craving or need: for something spicy or something romantic, something inexpensive or something nearby. They punch the ticket of a whim. They solve a riddle of requirements.
Where, for example, do you go if you don't want to shuffle more than a few paces from the Broadway theater in which the show you're seeing is playing? If you want a place that feels a bit indulgent but not remotely reckless? That favors hearty fare over dainty fillips? That pays fitting tribute to the milky glory of mozzarella?
You go to La Masseria. And you go knowing that, while you won't have the meal of your life — or even the meal of your month — most of your food will be good, you will certainly eat plenty, and you will sidestep the many disasters along the Great White Way, a culinary minefield of considerable peril.
In fact my first meal at La Masseria was significantly better than good, and that judgment transcended the mozzarella, a subject to which I will later return. Along with a colleague, I dropped by La Masseria for lunch, not really knowing what — beyond the probability of pasta — to expect.
The restaurant was almost empty, which may be why the food was more impressively prepared than it would turn out to be on subsequent visits. The kitchen wasn't stretched anywhere close to thin.
And so the baby octopus appetizer was a many-tentacled, many-splendored thing: supple rather than rubbery, with a garland of slightly crunchy broccoli rabe and a cushion of puréed fava beans. A tangle of tagliatelle did the Bolognese sauce atop and around it proud, providing a vehicle that was sturdy but never clunky.
Although many Italian restaurants sputter when it comes to main courses, La Masseria zipped right along, as if on cruise control.
A decadently thick, expansively broad veal chop, seasoned in a restrained fashion with rosemary and sage, was a juicy invitation to gluttony, which we promptly and unconditionally accepted, leaving very little meat on the bone.
An extremely moist fillet of pompano, sautéed in a bit of butter and white wine and sprinkled judiciously with lemon, provided precisely the right, light counterpoint, reprieve and amends that we felt we needed. We decided it was O.K. to eat the whole thing, and rapidly did so.
Then we waddled back to the office with that special brand of contentment — a satisfaction mingled with a sense of discovery — that you get when you've had a terrific meal at a restaurant about which no one had made grand pronouncements or promises.
And while La Masseria occasionally disappointed me over time, that lunch underscored how diligent and deft this restaurant can be with the highlights of its menu and under the most optimal of circumstances.
Masseria means farm or farmhouse, and it's not only the restaurant's name but also its design cue, readying the stage for walls of stone or rough stucco, exposed wooden beams along the ceiling and, dangling on some of those walls, antique farm tools: a pitchfork, harnesses.
Thankfully, the restaurant doesn't overplay this conceit. You notice it but then forget it, holding on to a vague awareness that the visual environment, like the food, veers deliberately and fetchingly in the direction of rustic.
But the most appealing aspect of this restaurant's setting is the dimensions. The dining room is relatively broad and extraordinarily deep, with a few unexpected nooks toward the back. All this space translates into tables that are not wedged tightly together, and the absence of crowding is a balm for the ears as well as the elbows. It helps keep a lid on noise.
The menu ranges far and wide over land and sea, carpaccio and capesante, in a naked bid to appeal to all audiences. There are unfamiliar scene-stealers, including a dish of fettucinelike noodles with wedges of eggplant and smoked mozzarella in a light tomato sauce. There are familiar star turns, including that tagliatelle. And there are unfamiliar performances from familiar players, most conspicuously a limoncello-flavored tiramisù that, like most other desserts, was worthy of nothing more than faint applause.