Saturday, August 1, 2009

Tony Fantastico Does Up Ancora Ristorante New York

By: Ethan Shen

Tony Fantastico greeted us as we walked into Ancora, and yes, that’s his real name. He’s not the host, not a waiter or staff, but instead one of the owners of the restaurant. Every night either he or Elio Albanese is here making customers feel welcome and attended to. The effect isn’t immediately apparently, but as the meal unfolded we’d soon discover that, like the owners, Ancora adheres to more than just passion for great food, but a zealous attentiveness to the ageless and unhurried ritual of eating well.

It started with the table; dining with a lady, we found a name plate inscribed “Princess” placed next to her table setting. Unsurprisingly, this touch was a crowd pleaser, and apparently Ancora regulars even have their own personal nameplates. That same spirit of inclusiveness and winking sense of humor would be the continuous thread of the evening.

The meal began with a selection of fresh breads, paired with a gratis antipasto spread of sliced zucchini sautéed with peppers, big chunks of fresh parmesan cheese, and salami. The spicy zucchini was a playful opener that accentuated the other natural ingredients, piqued the appetite, and presented a generous invitation take our time to savor the elaborate meal that was to come.
The antipasto was followed by a triplicate of shrimp stuffed scallops, smoked mozzarella, and Oysters Rockefeller. The oysters were good if not a little overwhelmed by the rich butter sauce and my personal fondness for food stuffed with other food meant the scallops had me at hello. But most surprising was the smoked mozzarella which carried rich, smoky notes intermingled with a subtle sweetness reminiscent of the fresh milk it came from. Each bite was also enhanced by the roasted mushrooms layered on top providing an added earthiness and meaty texture making this item the unmistakable star of the appetizer course.

Our enthusiastic host then announced a lengthy list of that day’s specials which included tantalizing items like Shrimp, Scallop and White Bean Soup and Pork Loin Stuffed with Apple and Pinenuts After much heated debate, we settled on the Broiled Fish “Branzino” and the House Steak. For dramatic effect, the cooked fish was brought whole to table as the stage was set for its elaborate final preparation. Over the next 3 minutes we watched with rapt fascination as he filleted, flambéed, and finished the dish with truffle oil before our very eyes. More than just for show, the table side presentation essentially turned the whole fish inside out; taking the edge off the sharper lemon and peppers flavors penetrating the extremities, rounding them off with the subtle aromatic scent of truffles and exposing the most tender and flaky morsels for our consumption.
Counterbalancing the delicacy of the fish was a steak of such gravitas that you can’t help feeling like it should come with an entourage and a Tommy Gun. The house steak was not only fantastic, it was also unequivocally huge, so large in fact the steak itself was served pre-cut along the bone and each individual slice laid down as its own little steak. Living up to its high reputation, the steak was cooked to a perfect medium rare, giving each piece a firm, clean bite, and capturing the full character of fine cut it came from. Especially exceptional was the expert charring that added another layer of tastes and textures to the steak. With each chew the caramelized crust was intermingled further with the juicy meat and subtle sea salt crystals released bursts of flavor throughout the bite. This steak easily stands toe to toe with the best, especially when paired with a 2006 Vendemmia Chianti-Classico which balanced our food with a full bodied fruitiness and dry finish that was just right.
By the end of the night, there was hardly room for dessert, but damn if we didn’t find space to fit it. We wrapped up with apple and chocolate tarts. The first was lovingly composed of alternating layers of pastry, apple and ice cream, while the second was composed a mousse so rich is some managed to still seem decadent even after the four courses that proceeded. We couldn’t ask for a better finish.
The food is excellent and the service fantastic. But more than just fine dining, what stands out about Ancora is how everything is presented with a distinct lack of pretentiousness and infectious enthusiasm. From Tony and Ellio’s glad-handing and the sing-song recital of daily specials to the comically oversized pepper grinder, the flambé’s visual spectacle, and of course, “Princess”, everything is designed to make sure you not only eat well, but have a good time, and leave with stories to tell.

Ancora Ristorante
11 Stone St
New York, NY 10004
(212) 480-3880

Ancora Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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