A Big Hit in Little Italy

Focused and friendly, Salvatore's is a treat.

Amid the galleries of Little Italy, Salvatore's creates fine work of its own. - Walter  Novak
Amid the galleries of Little Italy, Salvatore's creates fine work of its own.
It's not that the staff rushes you on a Saturday night at Salvatore's Ristorante. Sure, the place is tiny, and behind the snappy service may lie a need to turn over the tables as quickly as possible. But everyone, from the speedy waitresses to smiling hostess and General Manager Francesca Geraci, is so darned friendly and eager to please, that you never feel pushed to clear your plate and hit the streets.

No, it's not the staff you feel breathing down your neck. Rather, you are sensing the eyes of the patrons still waiting to be seated . . . big, hungry eyes boring into the back of your head from inside the itsy-bitsy, glass-enclosed foyer where they wait. Those famished eyes, belonging to guests who are eager to savor the same tender calamari, gigantic veal chops, and spicy pasta upon which you feast. Eager to sit at your candlelit table looking out onto the sidewalks of Little Italy. Eager to tip a glass of robust red wine with their family and friends. Eager, in other words, to have you get the heck outta there, so they can take your table and sample the pleasures that you are now enjoying.

Not that anyone is likely to ultimately regret a minute spent anticipating a meal at Salvatore's. The menu is a creative blend of tried-and-true Italian standards with a few contemporary twists. Execution is nearly perfect. Presentation is lovely. And the Murray Hill restaurant's urbane atmosphere makes you feel that you are someplace -- and someone -- special.

Salvatore's breads, salad dressings, and some desserts are housemade. Marinara sauce is cooked up daily, and other sauces, like the popular smoked-tomato cream sauce, are made to order. Fresh pastas come from Ohio City Pasta, and dried pastas are high-quality Italian imports. And even in the off-season, produce is remarkably fresh and flavorful.

From the moment guests are seated and their breadbasket arrives, Salvatore's focus on quality shows. A warm, cake-like focaccia was heady with the scent of rosemary. Crisp-crusted Italian bread was dense and moist. A saucer of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and grated Romano cheese made the perfect accompaniment for the breads and was so well-balanced and savory, we nearly ate it with a spoon.

The restaurant's modest wine list concentrates, as expected, on Italian reds and whites, with a few Californian and French vintages thrown in for good measure. Bottle prices check in at $18 to $120, with most selections in the $25 to $45 range and only a few choices available by the glass. We were lucky to have spotted the evening's featured wine, a 1998 Rubizzo Sangiovese for $27 a bottle, on the chalkboard in the foyer. Deep red, with a tingling taste of cherries and black pepper, this medium-body Tuscan wine was a real crowd-pleaser and went well with everything on our table that evening.

(The Sangiovese grape forms the basis of that Italian staple, Chianti, for which it is blended with the Cannaiolo grape as well as with the white Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes. But when used alone, the noble Sangiovese grape makes a reasonably priced, highly versatile, and complex red wine that is generally a much better choice than those silly, straw-covered bottles of cheap Chianti. And, better still, Sangiovese becomes an intense and sophisticated "super Tuscan" wine, just right for special occasion splurges, when blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.)

Appetizers are hearty at Salvatore's and, if you want to be able to enjoy your entrée, sharing seems to be the only sensible approach. Calamari is Chef Michael DeGeronimo's house specialty, and it took four of us to do damage to a lovingly arranged platter of lightly breaded and sautéed rings, roasted red pepper slices, and dark green leaves of barely tender baby spinach. The colors of the food -- red, white, and green -- echoed those of the Italian flag, we appreciatively noted, and made for a dish that looked as bright and artful as it tasted. On the side came a wedge of fresh lemon, for squeezing over the tender calamari, and a bowl of chunky marinara sauce that was so fresh and juicy, we eagerly mopped up every drop.

Our other appetizer choice was a platter of delicious lobster- and crab-stuffed ravioli: six petite pasta pockets done to a firm al dente and filled with a luscious seafood mixture that DeGeronimo makes himself. The delicate ravioli were arranged on a pool of light, creamy, and vaguely sweet butternut-squash purée that had been drizzled with a touch of zesty sun-dried tomato syrup. As further embellishments, the dish was sprinkled with black sesame seeds and topped with a pouf of fried onion threads.

You'll look in vain for lasagna or spaghetti and meatballs on Salvatore's menu. Instead, the eight pasta choices include a number of less ubiquitous dishes, like fusilli with chicken and vegetables in a lemon-cream sauce and handmade gnocchi with imported fresh mozzarella.

We adored a serving of Linguine Piccante di Pollo: fresh chipotle-pepper linguine tossed with neatly cut matchsticks of grilled chicken and leaves of tender spinach, in a rich smoked-tomato and cream sauce. The mild-flavored chipotle pepper gave the al dente pasta a pleasant zing, but not too much fire, and blended sensationally with the smoky sauce.

Also a winner was the Penne alla Vodka: a bowl of perfectly done penne pasta tossed with paper-thin strips of lean, chewy prosciutto ham in a light and mildly spiced sauce of tomato, vodka, and cream.

The remainder of the menu is dominated by an assortment of veal and seafood dishes. We were astonished by the size of our Vitello alla Griglia: an enormous, stuffed, long-boned veal chop that overwhelmed its plate. Ordered medium-rare, the meat was meltingly tender and juicy, and reached almost-obscene heights of richness with the addition of the ricotta, Asiago, and spinach filling. The giant chop, topped with a juicy Roma tomato-and-basil concassée, had come to rest on a mountain of rosemary-and-garlic-scented mashed potatoes and was sided with a generous portion of slender roasted asparagus spears, which were as tasty and crisp as if they had just come out of the garden.

The "fish of the house" -- Pesce di Casa -- was another pleasure. The thick filet of delicate striped sea bass had been coated with three types of mustard seeds and three types of sesame seeds, then pan-seared to a crisp and crunchy turn. But beneath the toothsome crust, the fish was as moist and tender as could be, and the seeds' oils, released during searing, added a richness to the fish that was out of this world. The filet was beautifully served with three creamy, grilled polenta cakes, which had been cut into the shape of stars, and a portion of gently handled greens, all on a smooth, fresh-tasting sauce of deep-red sun-dried chile peppers that, again, sparkled far more than it burned.

Pollo Imbotitti is the kitchen's only chicken entrée, but it's a good one. Imagine a large breast of grilled chicken topped with thin slices of eggplant, fresh basil leaves, and roasted red pepper, then wrapped in phyllo and baked until crisp, and served with a sweet and chunky tomato sauce. Mmm . . . crunchy, but moist. Smoky, yet sweet. Meaty, but set off with the flavors of a summer market. And on the side, two big scoops of smooth mashed sweet potatoes and spears of that perfectly roasted asparagus. Buono, indeed!

After all this, you might guess desserts would be anticlimactic. But no, Salvatore's sweeties are definitely worth the caloric investment. A portion of light but rich tiramisu -- ladyfingers soaked in espresso, then layered with frothy, sweetened mascarpone cheese and topped with sweetened cocoa powder -- was as good as any we have had. A variation on the theme -- a delicate but powerful Almond Cream Cake -- had ladyfingers soaked in almond-flavored Amaretto, then layered with mascarpone and topped with toasted and crushed almonds. But our final choice, the housemade Chocolate Salvatore, was my personal favorite. Much more interesting than the typical flourless chocolate cake, this super-dense wedge of smooth and not-too-sweet chocolate was served icy cold, with a crisp crust and a silky interior that reminded me of premium chocolate-fudge ice cream. Sided with a froth of real whipped cream, the dessert was satisfying, yet easy on the palate.

Throughout the meal, our sweet and smiling server was fast and generally efficient. However, we wished she had removed more of the soiled dishes before bringing our desserts, and we chuckled to see our decaf served directly out of the orange-handled brewing pot, rather than from a more elegant carafe. Coffee cream came in little plastic pots, rather than in a pitcher, and when we asked for more, our server simply dumped a fistful of the tubs in the middle of the table. When so much about an evening is so very fine, little things like these are certainly minor issues. Still, they seemed out of sync with the restaurant's overall gracious image and would have been easy enough to correct.

Finally full and well-satisfied, we sidled between the crowded tables, past the owners of those hungry eyes, and out the door. We couldn't resist taking a stroll down Murray Hill Road, past art galleries and boutiques, into the heart of Little Italy on that beautiful fall night. And when we returned a short while later to pick up our car, sure enough, that long-suffering party of four was sitting in our seats! But now, their eyes were aglow with pleasure, not pain. And we smiled, because we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were going to have a very good time.

Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at [email protected].