Felice: New York City
Felice 15 Gold Street in Manhattan's financial district had not been open for even a month before Hurricane Sandy dropped a bomb for booming business. Upon their reopening about a week later, I visited during an eerily docile lunch hour. Whether the lack of bussle was due to the storm or its unassuming location on an off-the-beaten-path corner in less tourist-trafficked part of lower Manhattan, I would not be able to to tell. But what I would be able to tell is that you and your stomach will be well taken care of in this surprisingly warm and well-focused restaurant in the lobby of the Thompson Hotel.
The downtown offshoot of its older same-name sorella on the Upper East Side, and from the Casa Lever famiglia of Jacopo Giustiniani and Gherardo Guarducci, it would be simple to choc up its buoyancy to its royal lineage. But happy baby Felice can hold its own, and furthermore, surpass any surly expectations of a "hotel restaurant." Translating the Italian sensibility to a rustic NY restaurant, the owner offers "Felice" wines from his family's vineyard in Lucca (upstairs too at their La Soffitta wine loung) and hired executive Chef Simone Parisotto to transmit the Tuscan tastes to your tongue. Well I was just tickled.
Their resident red blend of Syrah, Colorino and Sangiovese I had was bold with body and spice, standing up to the excellent Coccoli: a hefty slab of wood decorated with neverending folds of salty aged proscuitto, creamy but coquettish crescenza cheese, and airy fried dough crisps (smartly appearing on their brunch and dinner menus as well).
I vote that the soup special make itself comfortable on the menu throughout the fall - a rich and luscious dairy-free cauliflower concotion I was prepared to marinate anything and everything in. The nontraditional salad of soft quinoa grains paired with diced bits of octopus was clean and simple but still had that satisfying meaty bite. Even more clean - and perhaps to a fault - was the coffee-crusted (but undetectable) beef carpaccio, which had the right idea of raw and fresh, but got lost in flavor under a mountainous bed of peppery arugula, a sheet of sharp parmesan cheese, and molto fruity olive oil.
Though the tagliatelle pasta bolognese was a bit generic (its veal ragu tasted like run-of-the-mill saucy ground beef), you could detect the freshness of the pasta itself - cooked al dente, of course. Much more can be said for the whole grilled Branzino, which was perfectly buttery and flakey. And for those of you intimidated by fish on the bone, you'll be felice to know they filet it for you but repack it - skin on, head included - so that the pieces present the illusion of a whole fish, minus the bone-dodging tedium.
In addition to the delightful service and ambiance, I have to admit I was most impressed with the desserts, often an afterthought at even the most elite restaurants. The pumpkin ricotta cheesecake had the perfect sweet to salty ratio, savory and smooth and satisfying, with no lingering artificial pumpkin filling aftertaste. More dense and decadent was the chocolate hazelnut cake which just tasted like a ball of sin. With a hard chocolate ganache exterior studded with crunchy hazelnuts, the interior was an amalgamated layering of sensuous mousse and cake that got lost in each other in the best way possible. (I got lost in it just the same.)
But as quickly as you can lose yourself in the raw revelry of edible Italian bliss, you can gain your footing in this grounded restaurant with deep roots in the rustic Tuscan countryside and branches that extend into our Manhattan cityscape.
Rebecca Kritzer is the author of REBEats blog