NEW YORK — My friend the writer/cook isn't very happy.
She has brought me here to Azzurro (Blue), her favorite little hole-in-the-wall, family-run, Upper East Side Sicilian restaurant, to show off the place. "It's wonderful ," she has assured me, "and not the least bit like anything you've got in L.A."
But now what does she find? The family that runs this family-run establishment has all run off somewhere. Mama, who is the real cook on the premises, is on vacation--in Brazil, of all places. One of mama's sons has just returned from Florida and has phoned to say that he won't be coming in tonight. The other son is down the street somewhere on an errand, and will be back later--maybe. Meanwhile, though, what are we to do?
"Well," my friend says, clearly not entirely convinced that this is a good idea at all, "we might as well order something." She knows the territory, so she makes the choices, from a short, intriguing menu (lots of dishes are given their Sicilian dialect names) priced in what I suppose must by now be considered the middle range--$5-$8.50 for antipasti, $11-$13.50 for pastas, $14-$19.50 for main dishes. (If these prices seem a bit steep for a hole-in-the-wall, incidentally, I must explain that this hole-in-the-wall has been attractively done up with exposed brick and handsome old prints, and has recently received a two-star review from the New York Times.)
We begin with bruschetta , the real Italian garlic bread, in this case toasted on a wood-burning grill, drenched in olive oil flavored with hot red pepper and covered with coarsely chopped fresh tomatoes and basil. (The bread comes from the Policastro bakery in Hoboken, currently considered to be one of the two or three best in the New York area.) I love the stuff. My friend makes no comment, but does her portion proud.
Next comes a helping of the Sicilian eggplant salad called (in dialect) capunata . The writer/cook shakes her head. "There's too much oil on the plate, and the vegetables weren't all cooked separately like mama does them, and they shouldn't have put capers in it." I think it's the best version of dish I've ever had.
Two cheese dishes follow: Furmaggiu a cunigghiu literally means something like "rabbit-style cheese." It is in fact a steak-sized slice of provolone, scattered with dried herbs and lightly melted on a bed of greens; the name is said to derive from the fact that the cheese is thought to smell a bit like roasting rabbit when it is warmed. (It might also be a substitute for rabbit uncaught, of course, like Welsh rabbit.)
I like it fine, though it's not really out of the ordinary. My friend just scowls. The other furmaggiu dish is mozzarella wrapped in a thin skin of delicate prosciutto and accompanied by roasted red peppers. The cheese is made in the kitchen--theoretically to order. It is rather extraordinary, I think. The writer/cook finds it too chewy, and not warm enough.
We sample two pastas next: The first, maccaruna chi sarde --thinnish hollow noodles in a sauce of sardines, raisins, pine nuts and fennel--is a dish that my friend herself has helped popularize around New York. It is delicious--hearty and sweetly aromatic and a bit different with every bite. The writer/cook rolls her eyes, dreaming of Mama.
The other pasta, mustazzoli (rigatoni, more or less) in a thick, earthy cauliflower sauce, is a revelation to me--a mix of flavors and textures I've never quite encountered before, and one of which I am an immediate fan. "It's not bad," you-know-who allows, "but it's not like. . . ." I know, I know.
By now, the errant son of the house has appeared. He comes by the table to ask how things have been, and my friend tells him, in detail. He smiles, nods, explains, apologizes, charms. He is still standing by when our main course--a platter of fresh, huge Mediterranean prawns quickly blackened on the grill--is brought out. He watches expectantly as we sample them. They are perfect to my taste. "They've been cooked about 20 seconds too long," complains my friend--but by now she is smiling also, kidding him a bit. The son of the house is content, and later sends us superb little almond biscotti and small glasses of Carlo Grauner's remarkable Malvasia delle Lipari (in which to dip the cookies).
"You know," I offer finally, "there really isn't anything the least bit like this in L.A. And it really was wonderful." My friend nods enthusiastically in agreement. "You're right," she admits, "it was ." She pauses. "But just imagine what it's like when Mama's in the kitchen."
Azzurro, 1625 2nd Ave. (at 84th Street), New York, (212) 517-7068.