Assenzio - 205 E. 4th St., East Village
Gnocchi di Patate al Profumo di Tartufo Blanco, Mozzarella-stuffed Veal with Porcini Mushroom Risotto, some of Perry's Carpaccio di Pesce Spada, a glass of Sardinian red wine, limoncello (complimentary)
One random Sunday, Perry and I were drinking and playing gin, and I was winning hand after hand. Finally, feeling cocky, I proposed a bet for the final round, convinced my win was guaranteed. Perry set the stakes at the loser buying the winner dinner, not to exceed a value of $30. I picked up my cards, relieved and excited: I only needed three cards to win. But sure enough, about two minutes into the game, Perry puts down his extra card and reveals his combinations. “I only needed one card to win,” he informed me. And so like the villain in some moralistic fable, I’d gotten my comeuppance.
I chose to pay off my forfeit at Assenzio, a Sardinian restaurant I’ve walked by so often I could mistake it for a monument. Last year, I really branched out in exploring Italian regional cuisine in New York, venturing into Roman (Lupa and Cacio e Pepe), Venetian (Al di La) and Apulian (I Trulli) cuisines, but so far never having Sardinian. The idea intrigued me, as did the inventive but reasonably priced menu.
The place was nearly empty, with the few diners all inhabiting the seats at the bar. Our accented waiter directed us to a four-person table, giving us ample room to stretch out and take in the funky décor. With quotes scribbled on the green walls and Italian pop piping in, Assenzio (Italian for absinthe) feels like a neighborhood labor of love. Our waiter who may have also been the manager was very friendly and informal, eager to please and recommend.
Perry and I started out with glasses of Sardinian wine to complement our meals, and herein I found the restaurant’s main vulnerability. The wine list was disproportionately expensive in relation to its affordable menu. I could hardly find any bottles under $30 and most were well over that. It was a strange quirk I hadn’t previously encountered. When I asked about wines by the glass, I learned there were three reds and three whites, a tiny fraction of the massive list. I chose the Sardinian glass of red at $9, thinking this restaurant should do much better than six wines by the glass.
Turning to the better designed menu, divided in the familiar antipasti, insalate, primi and secondi categories (though they had carpacci rather than contorni), Perry and I decided to split a primo of the homemade gnocchi in white truffle sauce. For his secondo, he ordered the swordfish carpaccio whereas I switched at the last moment from the braised wild boar in a red wine sauce with juniper berries to a very appealing special of mozzarella-stuffed veal with a porcini risotto. I am a big fan of fresh mozzarella, veal, porcinis and risotto, so it was impossible to resist.
The large portion of gnocchi came already split onto two plates by our helpful waiter. I was quite excited, because recently, I’ve become something of a self-appointed gnocchi connoisseur. Since being absolutely floored last year at Cacio e Pepe’s stinging nettle gnocchi and then similarly wowed by Lupa’s ricotta gnocchi with fennel sausage ragu, I’ve tried to seek out this very versatile dish whenever I can. Assenzio’s version was made of potato and was covered in the white truffle sauce. It was very good but the gnocchi themselves were lost in the strong flavor of truffle oil. That wasn’t a big problem for me, because I happen to really love the taste, but it would have been nice to taste both flavors in a little more balance.
However, my special was excellent. The risotto was unbelievably palatable and the mushrooms were fresh and delicious. I just wanted this entrée to go on and on, infinitely growing in my plate. The veal held up its end of the bargain too, being soft, cheesy and well-seasoned. I also had a taste of Perry’s carpaccio which was good (caveat: I’m not a big carpaccio eater) though he attested it was “great.” God, that risotto was stupendous, in case I haven’t mentioned it.
The waiter then brought out two shots of limoncello for us to enjoy. He couldn't have known of course, but I'm fairly obsessed with the drink, because it reminds me of the great time I spent in Sorrento. (That and it's a delicious citrus alcohol that packs a surprising punch.) The free alcohol wasn't a gesture I was expecting and one the waiter had no obligation to provide, but it fit the feel of Assenzio. It's welcoming, friendly, pleasant and fairly thoughtful. I'd come back anytime, though until then, I'll continue to walk by it day after day, finally knowing now the pleasures it houses. And Perry, if you're reading this, I'm glad I lost that bet. 8/10
From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out
- Name: Lonesome Hero
Monday, January 10, 2005