Marta: Roman holiday on a cold winter's eve

Marta: Roman holiday on a cold winter's eve

Marta: Roman holiday on a cold winter's eve

  On a recent Friday night, during one of the all too frequent arctic blasts of an endless winter, my brother and I took refuge in the warmth of Marta, the newest jewel in the sparkly crown of the Danny Meyer kingdom. It takes a certain talent to turn a pizza joint situated in the drafty lobby of a storied New York hotel into an unmitigated success, but Danny Meyer and Chef Nick Anderer have talent in spades; Marta, their ode to Roman trattorias is an alluring homage with a quintessential Gotham touch.  Entering the lobby of the Martha Washington hotel, we are hit by the toasty warmth and heavenly forest fragrance of burning wood, courtesy of two domed and wood-fueled brick ovens, their fiery depths on full view thanks to the open kitchen. We are greeted, relieved of our many layers of insulation, and led by our beaming host to a cozy table for two directly across from the kitchen spectacle.  As we settle in, our server appears and asks “Would you like complimentary sparkling water or local tap?” I doubt any waiter in Rome has such an ironic opening line but this is Manhattan in the not-so-new millenium. We settle for tap and a discussion on drinks ensues. My brother quickly opts for a flute of Lambrusco, but I need a hearty red wine to ease the bite of this bitter night. I want something Sicilian and our server comes back over with a bottle and a glass, pouring me a sip of Cerasuolo di Vittoria, an intensely colored blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato grapes. It’s perfect yet the glass he pours me seems a bit on the short side, especially at $19, but that’s one of the hazards of what I call the table-side pour.  We toast to our birthdays and our rare night together, thaw and sip while agreeably coming up with our dinner plan. There is no argument here since pizza is naturally the main event, but we need something to ease the hunger pangs while our pies get in line for their quick turn in the oven. I can never resist squid or octopus on a menu so the seppioline, a baby cuttlefish appetizer is a must. My brother is partial to a salad teaser, selecting the cicoria, a crisp but earthy tangle of chicory, arugula and citrus, garnished with nutty hazelnuts and parmesan shards. Choosing the pizzas is more of a challenge but we are agreed that we must pick a pie from each side of the menu, conveniently divided into pizze rosse and pizze bianche. He’s never had buffalo mozzarella (he lives in Indianapolis) so our first choice is the margherita di bufala from the rosse team. We proceed to quibble over the second pie, the habits of childhood hard to get rid of when one is famished. The patate alla carbonara calls to us but the testa, aka pig face, with pickled mustard seeds, celery and radish seems a bit too adventurous on a night when we are merely seeking comfort food. Opting for the funghi is the ideal compromise.  The appetizers arrive and are curiously anti-climatic. The char on the cuttlefish is lacking, the accompanying lumps of potato somewhat mushy, and very little of the calabrese chili, a Calabrian pepper noted for its mildly spicy fruitiness, is present. The salad, as my brother succinctly puts it, “is nothing to write home about.” I more or less agree although the combination of textures, slippery greens and citrus, dense parmesan and crunchy hazelnut has potential. Happily our server shows up with two complimentary treats making everything better. Why is it that fried food is always a crowd (or in this case a couple) pleaser? Because when it’s done right it is quite simply sublime. Risking tongue burn, we eagerly bite into risotto and mozzarella croquettes, tinged a subtle green from a puree of mixed herbs. Finally! This is what we deserve venturing out on a night like this. We hit gold again when the wood-fired rabbit meatballs hit the table, draped in a chunky tomato sauce, the gamey meat tamed with a dazzlingly bright and creamy ricotta.  While we wait for the pizzas, we take advantage of the free time to check out the dining room, already packed at 6:30 with an edgy yet decidedly mixed crowd of diners in typical New York fashion. The corner bar is filled with suits both male and female, tables in the main dining room hold the double-dating crowd and some hotel guests, while every seat at the counter along the open kitchen is taken by single diners. I notice a semi-famous local sportscaster amble through the room, and there is even a hipster couple with a three year old boy sitting at one of the lounge tables in the mezzanine area, happily digging into a wide assortment of small plates.  The pizzas arrive with little fanfare other than the divine scent of smoky mushrooms and pungent thyme. First the margherita, a vibrant disk of tomatoey brilliance, dotted with delicate dollops of the buffala mozzarella and a few wispy basil leaves. The fundamentally classic blend of flavors says pizza yet the accent is decidedly Roman; sauce that captures the essence of a fresh summer tomato, a touch of voluptuously rich cheese, the licorice jolt of the basil, all complimented by the almost brittle but savoury wafer-thin crust. Moving on takes effort but we are rewarded for momentarily abandoning the margherita when we sink our teeth into the funghi, a veritable treasure chest of hen-of-the-woods and hedgehog mushrooms, sweetly caramelized red onion and thyme, held together by a silky fontina. The crust, if possible, is even crispier with a staccato-like bite on the edges and a chewier note towards the center of the pie.  Such savoury indulgence cries for a sweet finishing touch, at least that’s the way we see things. Another conundrum--should we get the olive oil affogato or the ice cream panino? Given that they are so cleverly and characteristically named in this age of fusion everything, we decide we must have both. It’s madness to order frozen concoctions on a night like this but at this point in our meal we feel all warm and fuzzy, well insulated from the chill. NICE. The tongue-in cheek affogato is a mini set piece of unctuous chartreuse oil poured over vanilla gelato, garnished with blood orange segments and slightly bitter kumquats. The ephemeral honeycomb candy brings a satisfying crispy note to what would otherwise be an cloyingly rich pairing. However the panino is the desert all grownup children dream of. The ice cream sandwich for the city sophisticate; a salted chocolate biscuit with pistachios and smoked mascarpone gelato.  Magnifico as they say in Rome. Martha Washington Hotel, 29 East 29th Street, 212-651-3800 martamanhattan.com ATMOSPHERE: Warm and elegant with a communal atmosphere.SERVICE: Charming and knowledgeable in typical Danny Meyer fashionRECOMMENDED: Rabbit meatballs; risotto and mozzarella croquettes; margharita and funghi pizzas; ice cream panino and olive oil affogato.DRINKS AND WINE: Seasonal cocktails and a house Negroni; comprehensive range of domestic and international beers; Italian wine list with wide price-range; a wide selection of champagnes and sparkling wines.PRICES Appetizers and pizzas, $7 to $18; main courses, $25 to $35; desserts, $5 to $8.OPEN: Daily for breakfast, lunch or brunch and dinner.RESERVATIONS: Accepted. 

 

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