Business dinners are rarely enjoyable affairs. So, meandering through Nolita towards Peasant the other night with colleagues Craig and Harrison, in route to supper with vendors, I was all prepared to hunker down for an uncomfortable evening of middling Italian food and stilted conversation. The restaurant's forboding, industrial entranceway (pictured above) didn't quell my fears.
And, then it hit us - the aroma of fire-licked wood - a warming, heart-lifting scent that Craig was particularly smitten by, declaring it to be the official smell of Vermont. Lord only knows what the official scent of New York is. Harrison and I didn't even venture a guess. But, now that we were transported to New England via the restaurant's gorgeous open, wood-burning hearth, our dispostions changed considerably.
Peasant might be pleasant after all.
Laying in wait for our hosts, we bellied up to the bar and ordered a round of cocktails. My sparkling, bitter Americano put me in a relaxed mood and prepared my palate for what I hoped would be a flavorful meal - laced with the potent smoke.
Our two hosts, John and Penny arrived just as we were midway through our cocktails and we quickly migrated over to a large table, where we were presented with dark brown, leather-bound menus. Sitting aside the brick-walled, open kitchen, even closer to the powerful scent and pull of the burning wood, one thing was certain - the eats were gonna be tasty.
The entire party quickly agreed to let me take helm of the menu.
A wise party indeed.
After exchanging entertaining banter and gaining a few translations from our waiter, it was clear that spanning the breadth of the menu was going to be a must-do.
We started quite well, sharing small plates of Boccocini (small balls of creamy mozzarella, wrapped in proscuitto and baked till melty), Polpi en Purgatorio (directly translated to "Baby Octopus in Purgatory," a toothsome dish of small tentacled creatures bathed in prickly spice) and Panzanella (Tuscan bread salad, spotlighting ripe tomatoes, salty olives, crisp thin slices of red onion, flat leaf parsely and a dousing of good olive oil).
What came next added the "ahhhs" to our initial "ooohs" over the appetizers. Our waiter had informed us that the chef's special of Strozzapretti (Italian for "Priest stranglers," a long twisty-shaped pasta) with a robust, meaty Goat Ragu was miraculous. He was right. Miracles can happen. And, frankly the other shared pasta of feather-light Gnocchi with a gossamer morel mushroom sauce was an ethereal compliment to the intense, rustic Strozzapretti.
The entrees would have made a Tuscan mama proud, each served up in hearty portions and vivid flavors. (Okay, it's not like I actually tried everybody else's dishes. It was a business dinner, after all. But, knowing glances and contented sighs from the rest of the party, assured me that they were just as delighted in their dishes, as I was with mine.) Heck, the Spiedini alla Quaglia, a small spit-roasted hen stuffed with sausage and surrounded with a few dribbles of demi-glace and a mixture of roasted veggies, was just like my Italian mama would've made, if she wasn't actually a Jewish momma from Connecticut. Molto bueno!
Our amiable waiter returned and didn't even think of bringing the dessert menus. Instead, after a quick consultation with Craig, he brought us, as he put it, "the smack-daddy of desserts" - Peasant's creamy, dense Panna Cotta. And, just to keep our smiles on our faces - as if the rich, vanilla custard and my Moscato d'Asti wasn't enough - he also brought a plate of ambrosial bread pudding, hot from the oven, edged with crisp carmelized sugar.
At this point, I think each and every one of us at the table had forgotten all about business. The food and drink had seen to that. Peasant may not be too rich for my blood, but it is too rich an experience to simply inspire shop talk. But then again, perhaps that's what a good business dinner should really be - a chance to warm to people you work with day in day out and share in the joys of the table.
Breaking bread while making bread. All in a day's work - if you're lucky.