Porchetta, Rustic Italian, Reinterpreted With a Minimalist Touch
"Yellow beets are good, but red beets are pure pleasure." So said my friend as we nipped into our cubed yellow and red beet salad at Porchetta. Without doubt these delicate braised beets with lemon thyme, Sicilian olive oil, candied citrus and perfectly round goat cheese croquettes ($8.00) were pure bliss. All of the dishes we tried were defined by delicate (if not downright dainty) arrangements, yet bold and fresh flavors with creative twists. The distinct tastes in the Brooklyn mozzarella dish with braised artichokes, shaved fennel, candied lemon zest and fresh mint ($10.00) worked so well together it was as if they were engaged in song and dance on the plate. Each of the first courses we tried came with radish carpaccio floating atop like feathers. Even the olive oil for the bread seemed a well thought out choice -- intense and fruity.
The thoughfully pared down menu is set up in the traditional Italian manner with first, second and main courses. The portions are very small, which is good, because you'll want to have 3 courses. Otherwise you may leave hungry. We split the gnocchi with nutmeg and simple tomato sauce as our second dish, but could've each easily had our own. The gnocchi were ethereally light and soft. The warm touch of nutmeg brought us into the Fall while the fresh tomato sauce was a nod to the Summer gone by. The ricotta and oregano rounded out the dish. More crisp and caramelized than tender came the cylindrical roasted pork shoulder wrapped in bacon, the special for the night ($21.00). The muggine rossa, or red mullet, came as two torpedo-shaped whole fish -- a little larger and fleshier than sardines -- with 24-hour oven-dried tomatoes and olives. The muggine were delicious. Lightly breaded and fried, they contrasted nicely with a caper-spiked caponata ($18.00). Given the small, singular portions, Porchetta may want to ponder introducing some side dishes, but then again, that may just be too Baroque.
The desserts were less spectacular. The lemon-infused buttermilk panna cotta with toasted pine nuts, a fine idea in theory, resembled a breakfast yogurt. Although subtle, the grilled figs with honey and ricotta are what Italian desserts are all about. The desserts are $6.00.
The complete gut renovation of the former Banania Cafe produced a modern decor accented by copper paneling and a modernized antique wallpaper. Striving for the contemporary antique look, I felt the decor was on its way to complementing the food, but not quite there. While the bar stools were cool in their leather and chrome, the dining chairs were run-of-the-mill. The butcher-papered tables seemed counter intuitive not only to the minimalism found in the food, but also to the rest of the atmosphere. But hey afterall we're there for the food, not the decor. Wilco, the Rolling Stones and the Cure played at an easy decible in the background softening the seriousness of the food. I also couldn't help but wonder if it was a recognition, with a wink, of Mario Batali, who is reknowned not only for inventive Italian cuisine, but also for the rock music he plays at Babbo.
I don't associate delicate platings, geometric presentations and somewhat dainty preparations with Italian food. When I think Italian, I think robust and hearty, but also simple and bold. Porchetta achieves the latter while deconstructing the dish to its simplest parts. I've read that Chef Jason Neroni fits into the school of "molecular gastronomy."
To me it's more than pure science. The mozzarella wrapper's imprint was left in the chunks of cheese in one of our appetizers. This struck me as a conscious decision to not hide the process. I also can't help but think that the square lines of gold and blood beets on the backdrop of a rectangular white plate are like the colorful lines on a white canvas in a Piet Mondrian painting. The way Mondrian painted with precision, getting to the very core of matter -- atoms and molecules -- maybe Chef Jason Neroni cooks? And maybe the New York Magazine food blog was on to something when they wrote, "If Neroni can truly combine the two schools, he will have begun to bring the culinary mainstream into the 21st century."
Porchetta is located at 241 Smith Street, 718-237-9100.