Are Brussels sprouts the new beets? For years, chefs delighted in turning the slippery red vegetable that nobody liked as a kid into one we couldn't wait to eat, glass of white in hand, with dollops of goat cheese and a light douse of vinaigrette. Now chefs have taken on another pet project, Brussels sprouts, and they're everywhere: at high-end American spots as well as bars, at burger joints and hip noodle houses. Although I like those crispy, salted leaves and many of the places that serve them, what I liked even more was the menu in front of me one recent, bitter cold night, a menu offering charcuterie, cheeses and clams to start off my meal — but, refreshingly, not a single fried cruciferous bud.
I thought I might find them here. After all, the restaurant has been open for nearly six years, an eternity in this climate, and while it wouldn't have catered to trendy whims in the beginning, I wondered if this Northern Italian temple might have — how shall I say it? — Americanized over time. Thankfully, it hasn't. Recent visits suggest that Il Posto, still under the scrupulous direction of chef-owner Andrea Frizzi but with daily operations handled by chef Lucas Chandler and his talented sous team, is as locked in to its original mission as it ever was.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Il Posto
2011 East 17th Avenue
Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Friday, 5-11 p.m. Saturday, 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday
Mozzarella di Bufala $14
Not to say the restaurant hasn't evolved. Once written on a chalkboard, the menu is now printed on a white sheet of 8.5" x 11" paper, making up in efficiency what the color- and logo-free page lacks in charm. (On the patio along East 17th Avenue, guests used to have to wait for the server to come by with the handheld version of what was writ large inside, a time-killer if ever there was one.) The trim menu, courses still listed in Italian, is slimmer than ever, with fewer protein-based entrees (just four or so, depending on the night), and a total number of offerings that some places have under appetizers alone. Liquid nitrogen makes an occasional appearance, too.
What hasn't changed is the kitchen's commitment to technique, its exquisite sourcing and the dominant presence of Frizzi. Though no longer behind the burners, he stands guard in the busy corridor between open kitchen and tables, eyes darting around the sleek, small dining room, sometimes delivering a plate, sometimes stopping a server to whisper in her ear, always running his fingers through his shoulder-length hair.
Since 40 to 80 percent of the menu is new each night and the website isn't updated daily, you never know what a meal at Il Posto will hold. But it will most likely start with a handshake or nod from Frizzi, who relishes his role as host, a complimentary pour of Lambrusco and a generous bowl of thickly sliced ciabatta to dip in extra-virgin olive oil. If you're with a group, you might continue with the tagliere, an ever-changing platter of imported meats and goat-, sheep- and cow's-milk cheeses, many of which you've never heard of before but might later try to track down. If your party is more intimate, you might instead share the assaggini (appetizer) of fresh buffalo mozzarella, with ribbons of speck draped over cheese so fruity and soft, it's a revelation if all you've ever had is the cow's-milk variety.
The insalata tries hard to hold its own, dotted not with cherry tomatoes and grated carrots, but hearts of palm and Marcona almonds, perhaps, or pickled squash, butternut squash and a sprinkling of Grana Padano. But unless you have an aversion to seafood, I'd skip the greens in favor of the calamari, one of two nightly performers on Il Posto's menu. Not served fried (I hear Frizzi gasping at the thought), the pale, chewy rings are stuffed with a classic Italian filling of bread, capers, garlic and white wine. After one bite, you will rue the day that squid, batter and hot oil first met.
This being an authentic Italian restaurant, housemade pasta is served in small portions, and on that cold night we did what many of the tables around us were doing: We prolonged our meal with a shared plate. Another time, we might have ordered the pappardelle with pork-marjoram ragu, the restaurant's only other staple, but the gnocchi's invitation was too good to turn down: cubes of warm, tender apple; wilted spinach; unmuddied purée of butternut squash; and square puffs of dough bearing little resemblance to the dense balls that often masquerade as gnocchi. On another occasion, though, I wish I had RSVP'd "no" to the tagliatelle with scallops, which were perfectly cooked but didn't get enough support from other ingredients (fish roe, sea fennel) to taste like anything more than noodles with red sauce.
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But I've never regretted the risotto, which is made entirely to order — not partially made, then finished to order — and which one night was the table favorite, even beating out the fried yeast doughnuts known as bombolini. That's saying a lot, but the plate was not only a stunning ruby color (the pigments having permeated the grains), but a balanced combination of earthy beet nuggets and kale, with Gorgonzola to offset the root vegetable's sweetness. Don't order the risotto if you have places to be; it takes upwards of thirty minutes to toast the grains, bathe them in wine, plump them with stock, and whisk them off the heat for extra lightness. Then again, where else would you want to be but here?
After so many courses, you might wish you had skipped straight to dessert. But the fine New York strip, moist from sous-vide preparation and pan-seared to finish, reassures you that your instinct was right, and that's before a bite of the buttery foie gras. Cornish hen promises a crisp crust, as does snapper, which at lunch might land atop greens with hearts of palm and sweet segments of mango oranges that would put every other citrus variety out of business if only they were more readily available. The practice of pairing fruits with protein is common in Northern Italy, and more chefs would do well to take note.
Frizzi has said he thinks of Il Posto as a "food spa," adding that "when [guests] are here, we try to give them an experience outside the spectrum." From someone else's lips, the statement might seem cocky, but not from this man from Milan, who has been in the food business since he was thirteen and runs as high on emotion as he does on energy. (You sense a little more time behind the burners might be good for burning off the excess, but that's what his Saturday cooking school is for.) In terms of food, wine and overall ambience, Il Posto delivers — but there is a glitch, and that's service. Servers frequently fail to mention the $62 tasting menu, and on several occasions our questions were met with an ungracious back, our server having turned while we were in mid-sentence. That attitude might be fine in a big city — I've lived in enough of them to recognize it — but not here, not at the food spa that Frizzi has so carefully built.
As time has passed, Il Posto has fallen off the radar. Frizzi himself has never been chosen for the Denver Five, the group of culinary notables invited to cook at the James Beard House. He doesn't offer bowling or ping-pong; he doesn't have a star mixologist (though he does have a fine sommelier), or even those crispy sprouts. And yet Il Posto feels far from stale. Rather, it feels like a fine Italian suit or a woman's handbag. Having seen so many knockoffs over the years, you forget how beautiful leather can be, how lovely the cut of a pant.