Lidia Bastianich's Felidia: a Revisit
Three years ago I published a long-winded account of a taping of Iron Chef America that I'd witnessed a year earlier. It featured chef Fortunato Nicotra of Lidia Bastianich's restaurant Felidia in a battle against Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto of Morimoto. I believed that Nicotra should have won the contest, though the judges decided in favor of Morimoto.
Indeed, Nicotra's dishes -- which included fish-mousse crostini, raw fish crudo served on a warmed cedar plank, seared kanpachi with fennel salad in yellow-tomato vinaigrette, and a roasted kanpachi tail served on a thick tile of pink Himalayan salt with a bottle of single-estate virgin olive oil -- were clearly more interesting than Morimoto's.
I totally took it on the chin from most of the Iron Chef-loving commentators, including a hilarious piece of hate mail from Ted Allen that I may someday publish, but my impression that the challenger's food was fabulous lingered with me. Last Friday I had the opportunity to taste Nicotra's cooking, rather than just look at it.
The place appears much the same as when I last went six or seven years ago, before Nicotra was appointed chef. Felidia is situated in a 19th-century townhouse, with three dining rooms, two on the ground floor and one on a sort of second-floor balcony. The rooms are lit by sconces of orange art glass, conferring a warmth on the rooms. In the middle of the second floor, where my pal and I sat, is a prep area with what looks to be a rubber tree in the middle, where waiters and the maître d' scurry around finishing pastas. That table gives you a clue as to how important noodles are in the scheme of things at Felidia.
Around 8 p.m., the place was thronged with staid Upper East Siders in relatively formal attire, many there for birthdays or anniversaries, or reunions of college students and their parents. The compulsory first course is tutto crudo, a round plate arranged like a Jackson Pollock canvas with slivers of raw fish in profusion dancing around each other and colliding. The substantial serving included some sort of white translucent fish, bright red tuna (which, the menu assures us, is not bluefin), and some smoked salmon. What appeared to be toasted, blackened rice was strewn around, adding a welcome crunch.
Underpinning it was some very fine olive oil, and the dish was unforgettable. We had been enjoying a tasting of three olive oils with our basket of bread (including a unique walnut focaccia). These saucers of oil represented the output of Sicily, Apulia, and Tuscany. The Sicilian oil was our favorite. It had the advantage of being "green oil" (newly pressed), and had a verdant pungency that went right up our noses.