Jump to content
  • Welcome to the eG Forums, a service of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. The Society is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the culinary arts. These advertising-free forums are provided free of charge through donations from Society members. Anyone may read the forums, but to post you must create a free account.

Focolare: a new flame in Little Italy


Fat Guy
 Share

Recommended Posts

Four months ago, I started an eG Forums topic titled "Shame, shame, shame: shame on Little Italy," bemoaning the awfulness of Little Italy's restaurants.

Last month, however, something changed: a new restaurant, Focolare, opened in the narrow space formerly occupied by the unremarkable Fratelli Ristorante at 115 Mulberry Street between Canal and Hester Streets.

Franco Lania, who goes by Frank, hails from Northern New Jersey and comes from an Italian-American family with roots in Little Italy. He's not a chef you've likely heard of -- I certainly hadn't -- but he has worked at several first-rate restaurants around town, such as at the Sea Grill under Ed Brown, has been in Michelin-starred kitchens in Europe, and for the past few years was operating out of Miami where he was, among other things, on the China Grill Fort Lauderdale opening team, worked on cruise ships and, after many years as an anonymous journeyman, achieved some critical recognition as executive chef of a place called Sage on Fifth in South Beach. (Indeed, at Focolare tonight, there was a table of Floridians who knew of Frank Lania from Sage on Fifth and sought him out in his new digs.)

When Frank got wind of the Fratelli space becoming available, he jumped on it. After eight months of renovation, during which time the space was transformed into something with much more of a SoHo feel than a Little Italy feel, he opened Focolare (which means hearth) on 18 July 2007 -- his 40th birthday.

Frank has no publicist or, it seems, media strategy. I heard about the place through a friend in the industry, and her report was intriguing enough to get us down there for dinner.

The menu at Focolare is like nothing else you'll see in Little Italy. For example, when was the last time you got a dish like this in Little Italy:

gallery_1_295_33985.jpg

That's the house-made beet ravioli, one of today's specials. Frank told me he saw a similar dish at a restaurant in Milan and got inspired to try to improve on it. He replaced the ricotta in the original dish with mascarpone to make it lighter, and he added poppy seeds for interest. It's the most interesting pasta dish I've had in a long time, and it's one of the best I've had too. The sweetness of the beet filling is picked up by the butter in the sauce, and the pasta is nicely al dente.

Here's another one I bet you haven't seen in Little Italy:

gallery_1_295_66854.jpg

Yes, Frank seems to have a thing for beets. This one is always on the menu and is available in both appetizer and entree portions ($13 and $25, respectively). On the menu it's called capesante: seared diver scallops, truffled mashed potatoes and a beet-grappa vinaigrette. It's a dish I'll be having again.

Another good one:

gallery_1_295_30907.jpg

Rissoto de gamberi: shrimp risotto topped with a couple of prawns, seasoned with dill. It's $16 for an appetizer portion, $32 for an entree. Well made, and requires 20+ minutes to make, which is a good sign.

gallery_1_295_13647.jpg

Anello della casa: marinated roasted lamb with roasted garlic ceci bean puree, prosciutto-wrapped endive and a lamb-rosemary jus. It goes for $29. A terrific dish, cooked medium rare as it should be, and a nice portion for the price.

gallery_1_295_31272.jpg

Arancini di riso: balls of arborio rice stuffed with peas and fontina cheese, with tomato sauce. A great appetizer, $12. PJ was particularly fond of the rice balls:

gallery_1_295_112.jpg

The restaurant's operations manager, Diana Casey, is serious about wine. The list is small but covers a good range, from $20 bottles up to a $300 Barolo and a $580 Chevalier Montrachet. We had the Marquis Philips Shiraz from Australia. PJ was insistent that we allow him to "taste dada's wine," so we let him. He seemed to get a kick out of it.

gallery_1_295_38786.jpg

The menu is blessedly short, with just a half-dozen or so choices in each of the appetizer, soup-and-salad, pasta-and-risotto, and entree categories. There are also a series of seven piatto del giorno -- I was bummed it wasn't Wednesday for rosemary fried sardines over fennel and grapefruit. There is no chicken, veal or eggplant parmigiana anywhere to be found.

There are some nice little touches, like bread served in a brown paper bag:

gallery_1_295_7771.jpg

They make their own gelati and sorbetti in a machine Frank got in Italy. The technology isn't as advanced as what places like Il Laboratorio del Gelato are using, but the flavors are excellent. The mint chocolate chip gelato really comes on strong with fresh mint, and the vanilla has lots of real vanilla flavor. There was also a grapefruit-campari sorbetto available. They make their own cannoli, biscotti and a few other desserts.

The restaurant is, to my eye, handsome and tasteful:

gallery_1_295_4743.jpg

gallery_1_295_640.jpg

(No, I have no idea why the awning says "bistro" on it.)

We didn't try any of the house made pastas -- an oversight in my order -- but there's a $12.50 lunch special where you get soup or salad plus a choice of one of five pasta dishes (plus coffee or tea). If you work near the courts, that's a nice thing to have available.

Focolare is only a month old, and there were technical flaws here and there in some of the things we tasted. But the crew is serious about breaking the mold in Little Italy. I chatted with Frank and Diana a bit and was impressed with their dedication. Focolare deserves a closer look.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

looks good but one thing about the beet ravioli - while possibly rare in little italy, this is a traditional northern italian dish - casunziei - and the poppy seeds are an integral part of it. i was surprised that the chef would say he added them "for interest." (although the traditional version is made with ricotta. i imagine the mascarpone worked very nicely.) you will find good casunziei at Al di La in Brooklyn and Abboccato in the city.

Alcohol is a misunderstood vitamin.

P.G. Wodehouse

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I was inaccurate on that point. I think he was just pointing out that the poppy seeds add interest, rather than claiming that as part of his adaptation -- and I wrote it up wrong because I'm ignorant. I'm aware of the dish at ADL but haven't tried it there, but I know they use poppy seeds too. The dish was also on Frank's menu at the Florida place -- as were several of the other dishes at Focolare.

I forgot to mention, by the way, that there's an 18% service charge added to the bill, and also that Focolare is directly across from my favorite parking lot in the neighborhood -- the outdoor one where from Monday to Thursday if you enter I think between 5 and 7 you can part all evening for $12-something, and it comes to exactly $15 with tax.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

There is no actual focolare cooking (hearth/fireside cooking) going on at the place. It's just the name they chose.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

sounds like a cool place. Finally a restaurant to recommend when out of towners really want an Italian meal in what's left of Little Italy.

A few thoughts and comments...

He replaced the ricotta in the original dish with mascarpone to make it lighter, and he added poppy seeds for interest.

I'm sure they were delicious with mascarpone. But I find it funny when people give reasons like this. I can remember once when David Rosengarten did a television piece on Philly cheese steak and he was asking one of the guys at one of the famous places about the bread and what makes it special. "We like this bread because, you know, it's crisp. It has to have that crispness," the guy said. Rosengarten raised his eyebrows while squishing the bread with no apparent difficulty and said something like, "well, I don't know that I think it's crisp, but..." and went on to say what he thought was special about the bread.

Anyway, the point of this is that people seem to think that "crisp" is a word one uses to describe desirable properties in bread, and also that "we used this because it's lighter" is a desirable way to describe substituting a different ingredient. Anyone who is familiar with ricotta and mascarpone will know that substituting the latter for the former will in no way result in a lighter ravioli filling. Quite the opposite: it will result in a richer, silkier filling. Which, from the sound of things, is a good idea -- but not lighter.

On the menu it's called capesante: seared diver scallops, truffled mashed potatoes and a beet-grappa vinaigrette.

Cappesante (usually with a doubled P, but there are numerous spellings) is Italian for "scallop(s)." It comes from cappa (cape) and santa (saint) -- presumably because scallop shells look like a cape and... er... Italians like to throw the church in whenever they have a chance?

Anyway, beet-grappa vinaigrette sounds very interesting. Did it taste alcoholic at all, or was the alcohol cooked off somehow?

--

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Scallops also have holy name in French..coquille St. Jacques..a scallop shell was the symbol of the Crusaders and, I believe,  religious pilgrams of that time...not sure about the last.... voquille meaning shell...

isn't coquille St. Jacques a specific scallop preparation? its a classic French dish....still available on a few NY menus...albeit almost extinct. does it also just refer to scallops per se?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Coquille is French for "shell." Coquille Saint Jacques is the name for "scallop shell." It is also the name of a classic preparation where scallops are served in the shell, etc. To add to the confusion, both coquille and coquille Saint Jacques may refer to scallops.

--

Link to comment
Share on other sites

the scallop shell is a symbol of santiago di campostela (st. jacques, or santiago matamoros) and is carried by pilgrims who make their way across france and spain to the famous site in galicia*, an incredibly popular pilgrimage since the early middle ages.... one still sees the pilgrinms in burgos and the basque regions. pilgrims carry them to drink from and to symbolize their status for those who might offer comfort along the way. i would guess that this is where the holy part of capesante comes from.....

edit from asturias...

Edited by pidge (log)
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Coquille is French for "shell."  Coquille Saint Jacques is the name for "scallop shell."  It is also the name of a classic preparation where scallops are served in the shell, etc.  To add to the confusion, both coquille and  coquille Saint Jacques may refer to scallops.

My understanding is that coquilles Saint Jacques are actually a specific type of scallop. When I did a cooking class with Paule Caillat (www.promenadesgourmandes.com) in Paris, we picked some of these up from the open market near her home. They were really succulent and sweet and had a weird orange "foot" in them. Here's a picture from a quick search online: http://cucinatestarossa.blogs.com/weblog/2...de_ma_fe_1.html.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Jesikka, those just look like whole (i.e., uncleaned) scallops with the roe attached.

Further on the St. Jacques thing... it appears that the scallop shell is the symbol of Saint James the Greater.

--

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Jesikka, those just look like whole (i.e., uncleaned) scallops with the roe attached.

Further on the St. Jacques thing... it appears that the scallop shell is the symbol of Saint James the Greater.

Yes, they are, but Paule gave a long explanation about them being a type of scallop which I have now forgotten but Dave H probably remembers.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 Share

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...