It is a rare occasion, indeed, when I pen a belated valentine to a masterful chef. Chef Joseph Scarpone is the subject of my culinary heart. He opened Ulivo, a Queen Village BYOB trattoria in November. Cousin Carl and I astounded as this talented man turned out scrumptious dish-after-dish. "Keep it fresh and keep it simple" is his mantra. He succeeded in countless ways.
Cousin Carl and I settled in and marveled at the short, but expertly planned menu. Our delightful server Simone opened our sparkling wine, bought us flutes and placed the bottle in an ice bucket. Warm, slightly salty homemade focaccia and olive oil kept us happy as we decided on dinner.
Chargrilled, tender octopus ($14) was bursting with a smoky flavor, enhanced by the right touch of citrus, which played off marvelously against the rustic flavor of julienned sopressata and cubes of potato, drizzled with a garlic/basil vinaigrette. The octopus was braised before it met the grill.
Batons of crisp fried polenta ($9) were another hit. Creamy on the inside, the coating imparted a lusty, herb-like fragrance.
Since Scarpone’s restaurant is authentically Italian, pasta may be enjoyed as a second course. I found it difficult to find the words to describe two of the finest dishes I have sampled in what appears to be eons.
The gnocchi ($9.50 for a half order) almost floated off the plate. Scarpone prepares these little pillows with ricotta, adds some fresh spinach for color, flavor and texture and bathes the pasta in truffle butter. I have no more to say.
When was the last time you saw spaghetti carbonara ($9 for a half portion) on a menu? You can imagine my face when a runner placed the pasta on the table. A proper serving of spaghetti with bits of crisp pancetta was topped with an egg yolk. The first bite was a tasty thrill harkening back to the first time I tasted a dish.
At first sight and taste, Scarpone’s dishes appear simple. They are. But the flavors they impart are subtle and complex. This was clearly evident in the roast chicken ($19) and seared salmon ($21).
The chicken was brined and superbly roasted. Subtle hints of Meyer lemon added flavor along with the rustic heady hen of the woods mushrooms and slightly salty olives that were scattered on the plate. The chicken was served on a bed of saffron-laced fregola — the tiny pasta from Sardinia which made for a fine marriage.
Salmon is boring, yes? Scarpone’s version was anything but. He gets the right sear and serves it with a salsa verde made from Brussels spouts prepared with herbs and a carrot vinaigrette. Faro can be tricky. It is so often undercooked. Scarpone hit the mark again.
Desserts shined as well. Carl and I shared a slice of rosemary olive oil cake ($7) that reminded me of the cake Marcella Hazan once served during a Book and the Cook dinner.
I called Scarpone at 9:30 a.m. on a recent weekend. He was eating a bowl of oatmeal in his restaurant office.
“I wanted the restaurant to be neighborhood-centered,” he said. “I am 40 years old and my cooking continues to come with age. This is something I need to do.”
We chatted about what annoys me most in restaurant dining. We agreed we do not like dark places, over-the-top chatty staff, being attacked with the pepper mill and when a server constantly interrupts tale conversation with the dreaded “how’s” the so and so, is everything all right, especially when I have food in my mouth.
Suffice to say, Scarpone’s delightful staff was not guilty on these accounts.
Sunday brunch is in the planning stage.
I looked through my notes and reviews from last year. There were highs and lows but one thing is certain: Ulivo is the area's finest new restaurant.
Three extraordinary tips of the toque to Ulivo. SPR