New York City isn’t lacking for good Italian cuisine. Millions of Italians passed through Ellis Island, leaving behind a cultural and culinary trail of delights. And while Little Italy may no longer be the tight community it once was, new champions of regional cuisines have taken up the mantle, pushing back against the Italian-American classics of spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, and fill-in-the-blank parmesan.
That said, there’s more to the experience of Italian food than what’s on the table. There are plenty of restaurants that will fulfill your Italian Mafioso fantasies – white table-clothed joints with tile floors and plates overflowing with red sauce. But an intimate, cozy Italian cucina – one that evokes Slow Food moreso than the Sopranos – that, is a rare find indeed.
It was, appropriately, my sister who introduced me to Sorella, just east of Little Italy’s traditional borders. She couldn’t stop talking about broccoli – not broccoli rabe but plain ol’ broccoli – which didn’t sound particularly Italian to me, but off we went.
The instant delight of Sorella is that it is completely unassuming. Low-key customers mingle around wine and cheese in the front hall, while those lucky enough to grab a reservation will be led back to the back dining room – a sort of living room-meets-greenhouse space that seats maybe 20 people. It is a refreshingly elegant, but simple space, with a slanted glass ceiling and soft, dangling lights.
The menu hails from Piedmont, a region known for its red wine, white truffles and rich traditional cooking, yet home to one of the most innovative culinary scenes in Italy. Sorella follows suit, utilizing traditional ingredients, but updating them with a creative twist.
The first sign that Sorella is not your average Italian restaurant is the quality of the cocktails. In fact, some regulars will tell you to head straight for the caramel-rimmed “honey pot” and forego the red wine. But for the traditionalists among us, I can attest that my Valpolicella was excellent.
At this point, my sister’s raving about the broccoli fritto had reached a frenzied pitch. So we ordered two broccoli fritto for our party of four – the bare minimum really, because we scarfed those surreal, crunchy, morsels of delicious so fast that we probably could have each eaten our own serving. I’m a big fan of anchovies, so we also ordered the acciughe al verde, a lovely mild and nutty take on the notoriously briny fish.
For dinner, it was pasta all around. Beef short rib agnolotti – tiny fresh pasta pockets of robust, savory meat. Porcini & pancetta pici – absolutely heavenly (salty umami) but I’d struggle to eat a whole plate alone. The special, venison and chestnut stracci with hen of the woods mushroom & brussel sprout leaves – a hearty dish, ideal for anyone coming in from the bitter cold. And the pièce de resistance, impossibly fluffy pearls of gnocchi tossed with bright, sweet pears in nutty brown butter.
To have lived through two such gorgeous, surprising, and savory courses should be enough to make any diner content – but I couldn’t leave without trying the dessert. Sorella makes gelato in-house, and the coppa di gelati does the restaurant proud. My favorite scoop contained chocolate covered pretzels, a non-traditional but irresistible take on the creamy treat. We also chose to share the ‘bicerin’, a light chocolate pudding topped with rich espresso fudge (and accompanied by homemade whipped cream). As an adult who still fantasizes about the Jello chocolate pudding of my youth, this was a revelation – an elevation of simple childhood indulgence.
To say I am fond of Sorella is an understatement. (In fact, I selfishly toyed with the idea of not writing about the restaurant, in hopes that there will always be an open table left for me.) But as with all good things, Sorella should be shared – eagerly and often. Except for the grissini (hand rolled breadsticks) that is. You can get your own cornetto.