- Walter Novak
- Lamb chops are just one of the specialties mastered by Michael Annandono.
Now it's official: The day of the Italian pasta parlor, decked out in red-checked tablecloths and candles in Chianti bottles, is finally gone. Maybe Michaelangelo's doesn't get credit for starting the revolution, but as Little Italy's newest ristorante, this chic salon could be the genre's standard-bearer for smart, contemporary design.
The modern ambiance is all the more surprising since the restaurant -- a joint venture for executive chef Michael Annandono and food-lover Joe Rutigliano -- is nestled inside the same circa-1880s structure that once housed Villa D'Estes and, later, the short-lived Vetturini's and Filomena's. Say what you will about the food at any of those places, the space -- a warren of cramped, windowless rooms separated by arched doorways and stucco-like walls -- felt more old-fashioned with each passing occupant.
But after months of remodeling, the decor is as light and crisp as the flavors coming out of Annandono's kitchen. Halogen track lighting, yellow-washed walls with broad white trim, and a bank of French doors leading out onto a second-story deck create a sense of unfussy elegance. Built-in wine racks serve as breezy room dividers; trim, tapered chairs seem to float before their linen-draped tables; and as dusk turns to dark, the limoncello-hued walls transform into warm peach nectar, and every occupant suddenly looks like a million Euros.
All this urbane loveliness might overshadow some kitchens, but not Michaelangelo's. (The idiosyncratic spelling is intentional, incidentally.) Trained in the Italian Piedmont -- a veritable food-and-wine paradise -- Annandono has had ample opportunity to develop his craft during stints at Osteria di Valerio & Al in the Warehouse District and Gusto! in Little Italy. And while this is his first time coping with the dual responsibilities of chef and owner, his authentic Italian cuisine seems better than ever -- brighter, more focused, and ever more refined, to the point where even the most robust dishes glide across the palate like butter on hot ciabatta.
Ambitious but not overreaching, Annandono's seasonal menu focuses on lighter fare typical of the Piedmont, although a few Milanese and Tuscan preparations, as well as some southern influences, find their way into the repertoire. Virtually everything is made in-house. Main courses focus on veal, lamb, and game; fish is offered only as a special, to ensure the highest quality. And for seasonings, fresh herbs, citrus, and droplets of infused oils add snap, while the dark, woodsy essence of white truffles -- a Piedmont specialty -- is never far behind.
It adds up to coherent cuisine built from multiple layers of sheer, translucent flavors. Consider the precisely balanced arugula salad: a refreshing confluence of naturally astringent greens, a delicate "citronella" of judiciously sweetened blood-orange juice and extra-virgin olive oil, and a whisper of aniselike fennel. Or savor the simple grilled-focaccia bruschetta, some slices topped with whipped artichoke and olive oil spuma, and others with a finely diced salsa of tomato, green olive, and capers. A drop of roasted garlic oil, a scattering of cured olives, and a few threads of lemon and orange zest, and the flavors leap right off the plate.
Light but profoundly flavorful, rosy tissues of marinated Kobe beef tenderloin carpaccio, topped with curls of nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano, specks of dark porcini, and droplets of white truffle oil, formed a fine warm-weather starter. And among hot apps, asparagus bisque, assembled à la minute from fresh, sliced asparagus, lobster stock, and plenty of lobster meat, performed magic.
For lively elasticity, though, probably nothing can compare to Michaelangelo's fresh pastas. Bite-sized spinach and ricotta-filled agnolotti (like miniature ravioli) tossed with white truffle paste and the barest hint of sage butter; buttery cannelloni, wrapped around a filling of veal and ricotta, in a sigh-inducing mascarpone cream sauce; and slim tagliolini, in an authentic Piedmont-style ragu of veal, guinea hen, and Muscovy duck -- all practically popped with freshness.
Among meat courses, thinly pounded New Zealand lamb chops "Milanese" (lightly breaded with a blend of panko, Italian herbs, and Romano cheese) tasted like no other. And while we were expecting a certain amount of gaminess from those wild-boar chops, they couldn't have been more mellow.
In a refreshingly ego-free gesture, Annandono says he will tailor any dish to suit his diners' tastes, whether that means whipping up half-portions of pasta, substituting sauces, or serving an entire meal "family style."
That same graciousness extends to the front of the house, thanks to the presence of mâitre d' Marco Rossi. Like a rock star, he works the room, shaking hands, popping wine corks, and overseeing his crew of servers. Even on those few occasions when pacing lags or a tabletop goes too long uncrumbed, the host's mellifluous voice and calm presence make guests feel pampered.
Annandono and his fiancée, pastry chef Stacey DiVincenzo, make all desserts in house, including a killer panna cotta draped in warm, balsamic-marinated berries. In comparison, a wedge of ho-hum cassata cake prompted a polite yawn.
Of course, when that's the worst that can be said about a spot, we know we're onto something good.