The following restaurant review from the New York Times mentions that the restuarant features truffles from Croatia. Most Croatian truffles come from the interior of Istria and are considered some of the best in the world. John Kraljic
November 13, 2002
No Mothers, but a Respect for Tradition
By ERIC ASIMOV
SOME restaurants never change. The character of a Peter Luger Steak House, for example, or an Il Mulino is so distinct and fully formed that you want to preserve it forever. Other restaurants, the great majority, must evolve or fade into sameness, their distinguishing features turning opaque and gray.
It would be easy to imagine Le Madri in that whatever-happened-to category. Pino Luongo opened the restaurant in 1989 to a great deal of heat and fanfare and it quickly became the must-visit restaurant for what Bryan Miller, then the New York Times critic, called "the hugs-and-kisses-I-love-your-hat-Ciao-baby crowd."
Those stylish days are long gone. Situated in a neighborhood with a pulsating nightlife, Le Madri today posts a sign out front offering a free parking tie-in for the out-of-towners who make up much of the clientele. It hasn't heard a "Ciao, baby" in years.
And yet, Le Madri has evolved rather than ossified, and the results are more than encouraging. Under a new chef, Pippa S. Calland, who took over the kitchen this year, the food is better than ever. It is no longer the rustic Tuscan fare prepared, according to Mr. Luongo's original conceit, by the nurturing hands of a rotating team of Italian mothers. Unburdened by that particular gimmick, Ms. Calland combines a respect for Italian traditions with an international sensibility that nonetheless never strays too far from Italy and is always anchored by good taste.
Her evolved-Italian approach is typified by a surprising but excellent appetizer of tender pan-roasted clams, served with cubes of chorizo, cranberry beans and sawed-off tubetti pasta in a broth of tomatoes and chipotle chilies. The chorizo and chipotle add just the right smoky notes to this spicy, earthy dish. She serves rabbit confit in a crock with soft polenta, kale and melted taleggio, the fragrant, oozy mass adorned with toasted walnuts and pearl onions. It's the kind of dish that makes you wish for a cold rainy night and an old movie. So does bruschetta piled high with chicken livers, onions and pancetta, all imbued with the flavors of sage and balsamic vinegar.
Coziness now rules in the dining room, too. Once, the pale walls and vaulted ceiling seemed fit for Florentine princes, though they made the room piercingly loud when full. Now the room has been softened by muted plaid wall coverings, echoed in the equally muted but different plaid that covers the chairs. It is quieter, but the room feels as if it is swathed in flannel pajamas, patterns that juxtapose oddly with the pseudo-grape vines twined around wires overhead.
Waiters might as well be wearing footie pajamas, too, for all their puppylike eagerness to narrate the scripted extra details about the daily specials: for $87 you can taste the best white truffles that Croatia has to offer over risotto (superb, I must confess). A wood-burning oven on one side of the room remains a visual focus, perfuming the air with the scent of smoke, bread, oil and toasting herbs. From the oven come fine pizzas, light and crisp-crusted.
It's fun to see what Ms. Calland does with seasonal ingredients. One night she made a wonderful soup of ground chestnuts and rice, lightly sweet yet made savory by pancetta. On another night the chestnuts were in the risotto, with fennel sausage under a blanket of cheese. On a third, they had been ground into a pasta dough, giving it a pronounced chestnut flavor, served with a bright sauce of sliced brussels sprouts and squash.
Almost all Ms. Calland's pastas are distinct and lively, with clear, engaging flavors. Cappelletti are filled with sweet roasted butternut squash, delicious tossed with brown butter, sage and Parmesan. Housemade spaghetti has a lovely al dente texture and makes a good light dish with oil, garlic, cherry tomatoes and ricotta salata, all given unexpected punctuation by mint and hot red pepper. Tagliatelle in a veal and pork ragų is a fine rendition of the Bolognese classic.
Nothing at the table is quite so impressive as prime rib of beef, served as a mound of wide slices surrounding a bare bone, with a pile of broccoli rabe and roasted potatoes underneath. The meat is tender and delicious, yet with real aged character. Following closely behind is outstanding grilled rack of lamb. By contrast, a grilled veal chop is almost wholly without character, while braised short ribs make more of an impact visually than in the mouth. For seafood, the simpler the better. Whole wild bass, roasted in the wood oven, showed off all its subtle nutlike flavor. It was superior to both lackluster sautéed cod and pan-roasted striped bass fillet.
Desserts are not on a par with the rest of the meal. If you ever wondered how to make ice cream taste dry, try the gelato rolled in crushed almonds, served with a baba in amaretto. It's almost like eating sand. That is thankfully not the case with the top-notch tiramisų, though the field of dusted chocolate on top does trigger the cough mechanism.
While Le Madri may never attract flashbulbs and paparazzi again, it is ripe for rediscovery. When it was hot, it promised more than it delivered. Now it's the other way around.
168 West 18th Street, Chelsea; (212) 727-8022.
ATMOSPHERE Airy and comfortable, although plaid patterns add odd notes to the Tuscan design.
SOUND LEVEL Once loud, now manageable.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Clams with chorizo; rabbit confit; sautéed chicken livers; fritto misto; pizzas; chestnut soup with rice and pancetta; chestnut pasta with brussels sprouts and squash; cappelletti with butternut squash; spaghetti with oil, garlic and tomato; tagliatelle with pork and veal ragų; prime rib; rack of lamb; wood-roasted whole fish; tiramisų.
SERVICE Responsive and eager to please.
WINE LIST Surprisingly skimpy; Tuscan reds are the focus.
HOURS Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, to 11:30 p.m. Sunday, to 10:30 p.m.
PRICE RANGE Appetizers, $9 to $17; main courses, $14 to $38; desserts, $9.
CREDIT CARDS All major cards.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS One step up outside at entrance, two steps down inside; restrooms are down a flight of stairs.
Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.