Where I grew up in central Jersey there was an Italian restaurant on every corner dishing out manicotti, ziti, chicken parmesan and not much else. I’m not saying that these Italian American restaurants don’t have a place. They very clearly do. They’re also important to our food culture as a country and they can be downright tasty. They aren’t, however, indicative of the countless different styles of Italian cuisine that can be found all across the great country of Italy. That is to say…there’s a lot more to Italian food than red sauce.
The first time I went to Rome I was blown away by the food. We walked down the cobblestone alleys munching on cured meat and cheese. I ate that first spoonful of pasta e fagioli and knew I had never really eaten that dish before. We had veal that melted on our tongue. I had pasta amatriciana so good I can STILL explain every nuance of it. The dishes were all so bold, yet still simple. They were hearty, rich and soulful.
Maialino means little pig in Italian. I’m not sure whether the owners are referring to the suckling pig that graces the menu or the diners that stuff their faces, but either way it’s a fitting name for this restaurant in Gramercy Park serving up the hearty and rich food found in Roman trattorias.
They’re dishing out some true Roman favorites like spicy tripe. They’re giving respect to the offal cuts as they should. They’re doling out secondi so good you’ll want thirds.
We made our reservation weeks in advance because we had no other choice. This place is popular. At 7pm on a Friday, even with reservations we still had to wait at the bar for a few minutes for our table. No worries. We asked the bartender to shake us up a bourbon based drink and a gin based drink of his choosing and we weren’t disappointed.
Wine aficionados we aren’t. That’s not to say we don’t enjoy a nice wine. We just don’t really know what we’re looking for. We asked for a, “ahem”, “modestly priced” bottle of red and were directed towards a lovely $45 bottle. They don’t have a house wine, nor do they have a truly “modestly priced” bottle, however we knew we weren’t eating on a budget that evening and were prepared. The wine was fantastic. Truly. We sipped and smiled the evening away.
Now, we aren’t quite wine aficionados, but we do know our food and we had absolutely no problem coming up with a game plan for dinner. We did a greatest hits of sorts and got two antipasti, one primi and one secondi to share.
In the antipasti section we ordered the Roasted Veal Heart (with mushroom and beet fondo) as well as the crispy pork face salad that was replaced with a lovely trotter dish instead.
The veal heart ($14) dish was one of those WOW dishes(pictured above). Fondo means bottom in Italian and is sometimes used to describe a sort of deglazing of the pan. I can only assume that they first roasted the veal heart (to perfection I might add) then deglazed the pan with beet juice and perhaps some vinegar. Throw in some mushrooms and you’ve got a mind-blowing dish. When the plate was presented it looked like it was sitting on a pool of blood, however, upon tasting said blood I realized it was this “fondo” sauce. It was heavy on the acid but in a good way, a little sweet and perfectly in balance with the rich veal heart. Don’t think you like veal? Don’t think you like heart? Think again. This is a must try dish.
The trotter dish ($15) was substantial. Slow braised pork feet were perched atop spring greens. They were everything that’s good about pork. Fatty. Rich. Juicy. Flavorful. They threw a few whole suckling pig feet on the dish too but weren’t really all that meaty, and in a nice restaurant, posed an eating etiquette dilemma. But my dilemma was quickly solved by not giving a damn and picking the feet up like a chicken wing. I’m not sure if this will be a regular menu item as it was more of a special that evening but I give it two thumbs up.
For the primi ($17) we decided to lighten things up a bit and get a pasta with just a little pork in it. We ordered the carbonara. A pretty classic Roman dish. Black Pepper, guanciale, egg. A testament to how something so simple can be so good. Unfortunately this take on it left a little to be desired. It was over salted in a big way. I can only assume they salted the dish, then added a heap of salty cheese to finish it. Salt times two killed the dish. The pasta, however, was cooked perfectly and I love that they served us each a small bowl of it instead of making us divvy it up ourselves at the table. They did the same thing for us at a restaurant in Rome and it was a nice little flashback.
Last but not least we ordered the suckling pig special because, well, who wouldn’t. It wasn’t exactly cheap, but for around $35 it was one heaping plate of perfectly roasted potatoes and suckling pig so succulent it almost made me cry with joy. This picture doesn’t come close to doing it justice. It was THE best pork I’ve ever had. I’m talking better than the spit roasted pork I had at a shack in Puerto Rico. I’m talking better than the best bbq I’ve ever eaten. The meat was so unbelievably tender and so unbelievably sweet that I almost didn’t believe it came from a pig but instead from some amazing, magical creature that was just discovered. Get the pork special. It’s special alright.
The hubby ended his meal with an espresso and I opted to suck the remaining morsels of pork out of my teeth.
Our meal at Maialino was wonderful, but it was also pricey. So go, but be prepared to shell out some dough. Make it a special evening out.
All of the antipasti were large enough to share with two people. The pig trotters could have fed more. If you’re splitting the pasta course be prepared to just have a taste of it. It won’t be an Olive Garden helping. Almost all of the secondi plates I saw were massive. We were full after our meal and probably could have still been full with just one antipasti split between us, but hey, we’re little piggies too.
Service was spot on. The atmosphere was lively yet subdued enough to make it feel like the fine dining establishment it was. There is ample seating but don’t expect to get in without a reservation. There was some extra seating in the bar area so you may be able to grab a drink and some salumi without a reservation.