To watch Paul Minnillo work the room at Flour is to witness precisely what was missing from Baricelli Inn. Drifting from table to table, glass of wine in hand, the veteran chef and owner gladly assumes the role of Salesman in Chief.
That's the beauty of an open, modern restaurant with a proper bar and lounge area. The mood is brighter, the wine flows freer, and yes, the food tastes better. Everything is better in the bar, and places without one — like the former Baricelli Inn — don't stand a chance in this brave new world of fine-casual dining.
Belying its cookie-cutter shell, the recently opened Flour is stunning. Opting to stay as far away from "rustic" as possible, the design team aimed for contemporary all the way. Worn-wood floors were ditched in favor of polished concrete. Tabletops are clad in burnished zinc. Sleek and milky subway tile envelops the backbar and exposed kitchen. Elsewhere, metallic chainmail is used as room dividers.
At least half of the large space is devoted to the bar and lounge, a bubbly zone that feels like a restaurant unto itself. Dining with small groups on two occasions, we naturally gravitated to that fizzy front room, where we ate and drank ourselves silly. If it weren't for the painfully uncomfortable schoolhouse chairs, we might have stayed all night.
Flour's cuisine is modern regional Italian, which is to say that it's focused, unfussy, and wholly reliant upon the quality of its parts. What chef Chris DiLisi doesn't purchase from top purveyors he makes, including but not limited to salumi, cheese, pasta, bread, and condiments.
All told there are more than two dozen menu options, ranging from a $3.50 piece of housemade ricotta-topped bruschetta to a $25 grilled sirloin. That cloudlike ricotta is dotted with herbs, anointed with oil, and spooned onto grilled bread. Other bruschetta toppers include plump rock shrimp and sliced garlic, and a combo of peas, Pecorino, and mint. Pair a few of those with a glass of crisp Italian white from the voluminous list for a dreamy meal starter.
To turn that starter into a small meal, toss in a charcuterie board. Ours was laden with airy mortadella, spicy soppressata, silky prosciutto, and funky-but-lovable headcheese. Other starters include intensely flavored chicken meatballs, paired with chicken livers and sweet balsamic, and addictive fried calamari flecked with capers and drizzled with creamy basil aioli.
Despite an over-coddled egg and a bit too much dressing, the Caesar is a winner. The garlicky dressing should be sold by the gallon. Great grilled bread is at the heart of the panzanella salad, but it is buried beneath an onslaught of roasted red peppers. Other green starters include a duo of asparagus and rapini, and a salad starring roasted sliced plums, kale, grilled radicchio, and gorgonzola.
Neapolitan-style pizza fans will appreciate the quality of Flour's 10-inch pies, which exit the wood-fired oven with the appropriate char, chew, and crunch. The Margherita explodes with summery tomato flavor, accented by great cheese, oil, and herbs. Other pillowy-crusted pies feature truffle-scented wild mushrooms and housemade sausage and mozz.
How fortunate that Flour's pastas come in half and full portions. Over-the-top in terms of richness and flavor, bowls of Bolognese-topped tagliatelle and luxurious lemon-scented fennel risotto are built for sharing. Alas, the delicate gnocchi-like gnudi goes too far, weighed down as it is by a gluey cheese sauce.
Hearty, satisfying, and straight-forward, Flour's entrées place the focus squarely on the center of the plate. An absolutely perfect roast chicken takes on a honey hue from the pizza oven. A Flintstones-sized pork shank is braised until fork-tender and nestled in a pool of creamy polenta. A pre-grilling sous-vide treatment leaves a sliced sirloin steak buttery textured and richly flavored, albeit lacking a satisfying crust.
For an "explosive" dessert, try the salted chocolate brownie. Paired with a springy basil ice cream and garnished with Pop Rock-style nuggets, the dish is certain to jump-start the taste buds.
Not that they'll need it: Dinner at this East Side gem is likely to leave your palate well tuned and purring.