95 Allen St (Delancey)
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 274-9595
Site: Visit the restaurant site
2nd Cuisine: Wine Bars
Area: Lower East Side
Sometimes in life, you just don’t know what you’re missing. That’s how I’ve felt every time I have dined at Sorella’s relatively empty dining room. Where was everybody? Why were they not three deep at the bar? Why were they not clamoring for a table? Why had no one noticed this young chef’s talent? Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve been dumbfounded at why Sorella has been so relatively uninhabited on the nights when I’ve visited. I could chalk it up to the economy. Or perhaps it’s been because the weather has been so brutally cold (that is, until this weekend). Or maybe it’s because I’ve eaten there during the week, and on the early side (7pm). That could be it. Then again, it could be because passersby mistake its imposing wine rack façade for a steel gate and assume the restaurant is closed or abandoned. In any case, I know it’s not empty because of the food or the service or the décor, because it’s rare that a restaurant so completely delights. But Sorella does. You don’t know what you’re missing. Well, let me attempt to tell you.
The debut restaurant of chef Emma Hearst, who cooked at Union Square Café and then took off to cook and eat her way the countryside of Northern Italy, Sorella is located in the former Mexican spot El Portal, and was gutted and designed by Resistance and set up as two restaurants in one. Up front, behind a glass façade covered in old wooden riddling racks (that tend to look like a gate) you’ll find a large modern wine bar with straw colored wooden walls imbedded with photos of Italy. The front room is immensely welcoming, equipped with friendly and knowledgeable bartenders and soft cushioned bar stools tucked under long communal tables ideal for drinking (there are house made sodas, as well as Italian wine and foreign and domestic beer) and snacking.
Walk toward the back and you’ll discover a large rectangular dining room with walls covered in tiny round tiles that look like they’ve been lifted from a spa’s steam room. Under a retractable glass ceiling there are about a dozen nicely spaced polished wood tables matched with incredible comfortable chairs upholstered in nubby gray fabric. The room, which has a view of the partially open kitchen and a cherry red prosciutto slicer, is set up for intimacy with a combination of flickering candle light from the amber votives on the tables and the cool light of delicate chandeliers made from clear bulbs the size of golf balls.
Hearst’s menu is divided between Qualcosina, “A Little Something,” or small plates that are akin to appetizers or primi piati, and Stasera Abbiamo or “Tonight We Have,” a trifecta of daily specials whose price (all under $30) also includes your choice of one Qualcosina. You can either choose to have a traditional first and second course meal, or do as I have done the past few visits and mix it up, ordering several small plates, one entrée and a side dish or two. The good thing is, the food is consistently great, and you will not be sorry if you happen to have a little too much food in front of you. It will get eaten, I promise.
Pastas are a strong suit. While I hate to play favorites, the risotto steeped in cauliflower puree, laced with ribbons of caramelized onions, bits of smoky bacon and just enough creamy robiola cheese ($13) deserves being singled out. My friend Diana went nuts over this, and practically finished the entire plate on her own, so I had to move fast to get just a few precious mouthfuls. It’s sort of the rice version of an Alsatian tart. It’s marvelous.
Agnolotti al Sugo di Arrosto ($14) is also remarkable: postage stamp sized envelopes of pasta are stuffed until they’re dangerously swollen with braised pork and beef and bedded down in a brown butter sauce topped with shaved parmesan and fried sage. There’s also a delicate dish of pearl-sized, light-as-air gnocchi ($13) served in a rather unusual combination of diced pears, brown butter and chives. If you’re not a fan of subtlety this may not be the right pasta for you, but it worked for me. While it might have benefited from a little spark of flavor—toasted pine nuts, orange zest, or maybe just a fresh shaving of aged Parmesan—its gentle sweetness was actually bold in its own way. Hearst’s tajarin—an egg noodle pasta cut into fine ribbons that’s indigenous to Piedmont—is also excellent, served in a beautifully fragrant lamb ragu punctuated with pistachios, and dressed in a dollop of fresh ricotta and toss of fresh mint ($12).
Hearst is also delving into a few dishes that you might expect to see on a menu by a chef like Ryan Skeen or Zak Pelaccio. To wit, her duck fat English muffin bread smothered with a wildly unhealthy (but wonderful) amount of artery-congesting chicken liver mouse, a fried egg and candied bacon ($8). When it arrived at our table, I welcomed it as our “Heart Attack on a Plate.” Diana turned to our handsome young waiter and asked him whether there was a doctor in the house. “Sure,” he said with a bit of mischief in his voice. “I can be your doctor.” Love a man with a sense of humor.
Sweetbreads ($11) are deep-fried in little nuggets and are served like popcorn in a paper cone with a sticky sweet dipping sauce made from quince and bacon. I’ve never seen sweetbreads prepared this way. It’s not my favorite—they tasted a bit too breaded—but it’s a cute idea. Quail—served grilled with a countrified hash of crispy potatoes, briny olives and proscuitto ($16) was fantastic, with flesh so meaty that I wondered if these quail were cross-bread with ducks or geese.
Crispy baby veal chops ($29), part of the Stasera Abbiamo menu, were also flawless: juicy pan-fried chops (there were three of them) in a bright and lemony tonnato sauce crowned with a fistful of peppery arugula. Veal and porcini lasagna is Italy’s version of a hungry man’s dinner. I imagine this meal might be served to farmhands after a grueling day in the fields but I enjoyed it quite a bit without the need to get dirt under my fingernails. The generous portion was almost more of a moussaka, heartily layered with veal and porcini, wilted spinach and a Parmesan crusted top ($27). It’s made for winter, so go and have it soon.
While the cooking is wonderful and is the sort I’d love to learn to do more of myself, if I had to point out a weakness in Hearst’s formula it’s that her menu doesn’t offer anything on the lighter side unless you consider a salad of pulled hen and veal tongue in a creamy tuna sauce light ($12). We didn’t. We considered it, but we were craving a sort of palate cleanser salad, perhaps one of arugula, chicory or escarole or something that might give our palates a break from the full fat cycle. Instead of the salad we had a side of vibrant sautéed spinach ($6), dressed in garlic and lemon that sort of did the trick.
Returning to the full fat cycle, I should emphasize that under no circumstances should you leave this restaurant without having pastry chef Yarisis Jacobo's salted caramel cheesecake with dark chocolate dunked pretzel bark. If you recall the way Frank Bruni feels about the Pecan Pie Sundae at Buttermilk Channel, you have some idea of how I feel about this dessert. It’s more like a salted caramel pudding than a traditional cheesecake, but whatever they want to call it is fine with me as long as they keep it on the menu. I had it the first time I was in for dinner with Craig, but tragically, when I returned with Diana and Jamie, it was off the menu already. Hearst’s homemade gelatos are worthwhile, sure, but there’s rarely been a dessert that I’ve loved so completely. If salted caramel pudding doesn’t pack them in three-deep at the bar, I don’t know what will.
Review By: Andrea Strong