A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Jun. 25.

Dinner -

Cacio e Pepe - 182 2nd Ave., East Village
Capesante con pancetta su crema di finocchi e olio di tartufo (Bacon-wrapped scallops served over a fennel purée and a touch of truffle oil); Spaghetti alla gricia con scaglie di tartufo nero (Spaghetti tossed with sautéed guanciale, pecorino cheese and shaved black truffle); Gnocchi di ortica con pomodoro comfit, rosmarina e mozzarella di bufala (Homemade nettle gnocchi tossed with tomato comfit, rosemary and buffalo mozzarella); Homemade cantaloupe mousse with a glass of port, half of a bottle of Sangiovese 2003

It’s the classic foodblogger’s dilemma: to blog or not to blog. I was going on a first date and I didn’t want the camera flashes to interrupt the mood. I didn’t want to push away her fork, saying the first shot was blurry, I need to take another one, or to scribble furtively in my notebook as we decided what to order. In short, I chose to forgo all the usual annoyances my friends have learned to endure when eating with me.

Her request was “Italian or Asian” and I was happy to comply. I had been awaiting a reason to revisit Cacio e Pepe, one of my favorite discoveries from last year. It’s a Roman trattoria that seems ideal for a second meeting. It’s lit by candles but still casual. The food is serious but not intimidating. The vibe is both relaxing and relaxed. My main reason for wanting to return was purely selfish though: I had to retry the nettle gnocchi that floored me last time.

Arriving at around 8:30, the restaurant was about three-quarters full. (They don’t take reservations for parties under six so I was a little concerned.) We had our choice of sitting inside or outside but were lured to stay in by the humming AC. Our waitress came by our table and rushed through the specials. Admittedly, I wasn’t really listening, knowing I’d be getting the gnocchi and trying to come up with good conversation starters.

Because she knew my gastronomic ways, we also decided to split appetizers and pastas. First came the bacon-wrapped scallops, which were excellent. Prepared with a fennel puree, the scallops were light and very artfully seasoned. The flavors of the seafood shone through but the earthiness of the herb and the saltiness of the pork complemented them in just the right proportion. My one complaint is the dish was too expensive, $11.95 for three bacon-wrapped mollusks.

Next we split a spaghetti with guanciale and truffles. I liked everything in this dish, especially the guanciale, which is the dried meat of the hog’s jowls. But I found the truffle flavor too dominating and the pasta too oily. It was still tasty, but it seems that there are stronger options to select. One obvious choice is the namesake cacio e pepe that Vince had last time. Peppery and cheesy, the pasta is scooped out of a giant block of Pecorino. If I had to do it again, I would’ve chosen it instead.

For the entrees, she had the salmon whereas I got the much-anticipated nettle gnocchi. I had been building it up since last October, but thankfully, it met the hype. The olive green gnocchi was softly firm, with a delightful and unique flavor. The chunks of mozzarella, the tomato comfit and the sprigs of rosemary were perfect companions, adding balancing richness and textures to the mix. But even more than the red, white and green color scheme, the harmonious blend of the ingredients and the simplicity of the dish were great testaments to Italy’s splendors.

Finally, it was time for dessert. More than most Italian restaurants, Cacio e Pepe’s list leans toward the unique and offbeat. Last time, I got to sample their green tomato strudel and this time around, I ordered the cantaloupe mousse. Even better, it came with a glass of port. The mousse was delicious, really highlighting the freshness and mildness of the fruit. The port cleverly supplied the requisite sweetness for the dessert. This was another winner.

As we finished our desserts and launched into yet another topic, I realized what a great time I’d had. The conversation had seemed to flow effortlessly and the food had been fairly wonderful. As we wandered back into the heat, tipsy on Tuscan wine, I knew that I would have to write about this dinner. Some things are too good to keep to yourself, and Cacio e Pepe is certainly one of them. 8/10

The Village Voice review from October 2004


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