Marea – New York City, NY
Given most Italian restaurants in the United States serve Southern Italian cuisine, essentially richer and far more tomato-based than it’s lighter seafood-focused Northern counterpart, it’s unsurprising most diners equate Italian food with pizza and spaghetti covered in the requisite “red sauce”. If you’re looking to understand Marea, Michael White’s Northern Italian restaurant just south of Central Park, a good start would be to point at the very first item on the menu, Ricci. A slice of toasted baguette topped with sea urchin, shrink-wrapped in a thin film of lardo, and finally dotted with sea salt, the bite-sized appetizer is a showcase of the restaurant’s style, the quintessential result of what happens when you marry Chef Michael White’s unique and bold cooking with the seafood-centric cuisine indigenous to the coastal cities of Northern Italy.
Given my intimate relationship with uni in its many Japanese preparations, Ricci seemed like an unlikely combination, but my first bite proved me wrong. It was surprising yet familiar; simultaneously challenging and comforting. A bolt of salty cured flavor from the lardo gave way to the unctuous sweetness of the urchin beneath. It was hauntingly good, yet little did I know the best was yet to come.
Glancing at the menu, one might mistake Marea for a Japanese-inspired restaurant, as the menu is teeming with raw seafood. Along with some friends, we managed to order practically the entire crudo list, with raw preparations of fluke, tuna, octopus, geoduck, snapper, butterfish, shrimp, cuttlefish, and jack mackerel crammed on our table. Some preparations were almost Japanese-like in simplicity; fluke was caressed with a hint of lemon and a golden dab of olive oil. Others, like the slices of bigeye tuna served with oyster crema and crispy sunchokes, were heavier and richer.
My favorites of the bunch were the cuttlefish and shrimp. Delicate ribbons of raw cuttlefish were tossed with a soffritto crudo (essentially minced raw vegetables) and dusted with bottarga di muggine (dried mullet roe). The bits of vegetables provided heft, texture, and spice to the otherwise slippery smooth cuttlefish while the bottarga gave a sharp briny pop of flavor. All coated in a wonderfully grassy olive oil, this was one dish I didn’t want to share.
Lightly bathed in olive oil and topped with a sprinkling of black lava salt, the shrimp crudo was undoubtably the simplest preparation of the entire meal. It stands as the diametric opposite of the cuttlefish in preparation, yet the dish lingers on my mind just as long. Perhaps the shrimp was impeccably fresh that day or perhaps I was just simply in the mood for it, but no other dish that day displayed the sweetness of the seafood with anywhere near the elegance.
Other small courses followed, including a soup (just ok), some grilled octopus (very good), and quite possibly the most luxurious brunch dish one could conjure: buttery brioche along with poached eggs, crab, sea urchin, and caviar. It was superb. But really, none of that -even the sensual Ricci and the fantastic crudos- prepared me for The Pastas.
A ricotta ravioli, covered in a vibrant nettle pesto and some parmigiano reggiano was so light, fresh, and smooth it was like eating a cloud. The gnochetti with ruby red shrimp, controne bean puree, and rosemary that followed was characteristically Northern Italian, with graceful and limber flavors and textures. We ordered the spinosini, which is a very thin egg-yolk based noodle almost like cappellini. The lithe noodles, coated with some white wine and tossed with clams, squid, and chilies was sublime. Did Michael White spend his formative years cooking and eating along the Adriatic coast? Sure tasted like it.
And right when I thought the pastas couldn’t get any better, Chef Michael White bowled me over. I hesitate when saying the next two pastas are quite possibly the best I’ve ever had, but writing anything else would be a lie.
Durum wheat fusili with red wine braised octopus and bone marrow was a triumph, an ingenious mix of ingredients prepared in a way you won’t find in Italy. One bite and the rest of the world seemed to blissfully fade away.
From what our server explained, the preparation of this dish is genius: octopus is first braised (I’m guessing in wine and tomatoes) till drunkenly fork-tender. Gelatin from the octopus is then mixed with liquified bone marrow, emulsifying into a thick decadent sauce. All combined with the sturdy twirls of house-made fusili results in an impressively complex dish. The sweetness from the octopus and tartness from the wine is immediately apparent, and the marrow gives the sauce a rich, buttery, luxurious mouthfeel, almost as if the kitchen had hid slivers foie gras between the noodles.
The lovely heap of golden pasta, lubricated with sea urchin, studded with crab and tomatoes, and topped with basil, was a profoundly indulgent experience. Sure, the noodles were textbook perfect, but the sauce was magical. LIke all my favorite pasta sauces, it was simultaneously light in texture but bold in flavor. It smacked of oceanic sweetness, with the sea urchin sauce ensconcing the crab, pasta, and tomatoes in a warm embrace; the uni’s characteristically creamy sweet flavor sang loud and clear in every bite but was never seen. Bits of bread crumbs are sprinkled on top for added texture, and the final result is undoubtably the platonic ideal of Northern Italian Pasta, with a flavor that seemed to travel through my body, linger in my mouth, and make me wish I never ever brushed my teeth again.
And in case you’re wondering, fantastic dessert is served at Marea. Naturally, we indulged; but who needs dessert when you can get more pasta?