In conversations with chefs and restaurateurs,
I’ve heard these words repeated like a mantra, "We want
our cafe/bistro/restaurant to be the kind of place where people
drop in, chat, drink wine, become family."
I never doubt their sincerity. Chefs and their partners are a warmhearted lot who share a fantasy - a bustling restaurant packed with diners who, visit after visit, become friends.
Albano Ballerini shares that dream. A former photographer of "small, sparkly things," Ballerini resembles the late Dean Martin (if Martin wore hipster glasses and a beaded fez). He endured two years of construction horrors to transform a space on Vanderbilt Avenue into Aliseo Osteria del Borgo (named for the trade wind that blew Columbus into America), a cafe reminiscent of the one owned by his family in Marche, Italy.
The saga of his renovation - rife with daily firings and rehirings - has the comic and tragic makings of a great screenplay.
Ballerini’s labor of love opened on Valentine’s Day. The quirky space - one small room with vintage rose-strewn wallpaper, brick walls and a huge front window, which Ballerini referred to as "sort of shabby chic" - serves as the perfect stage set for Ballerini, a charming and attentive master of the house who is adept at sensing an opening for conversation and knows when to step back and let a diner eat in peace.
Dishes are invented "at the whim of the chef" and change each evening. "It’s a very Italian way," Ballerini said. A dinner at Aliseo is eaten as they are throughout Italy - leisurely, in several small courses, accompanied by a glass or bottle of wine (30 of the reds and 10 of the whites are from Marche; all the wine is well-priced).
The meal gets off to a promising start with a dish of supernal, spicy, black olives and a basket of warm, Sullivan Street Bakery bread. Two chewy, salty, slightly oily slices of the pizza bianco (Italian for white), grilled on a panini press, weren’t enough. Ten slices of the irresistible bread wouldn’t have been enough.
Pull a stool up to the "bar" (total seating capacity of three) and you can watch Ballerini cutting thin pieces of meat on a deli slicer. One evening’s selection of cured meat might include imported prosciutto, a smoked mortadella sausage from Bologna, and hard sausages or salami for "something a little spicy and sweet."
Cheese is the meat plate’s natural partner, and Ballerini takes his cheese selection seriously. More than 20 varieties, categorized by their producer - cow, goat and sheep - are imported from Italy and served three ways: regular, artisanal and "stinky." (He’s not kidding about the "stinky.")
Not every dish that emerges from Ballerini’s tiny kitchen works, yet all are inventive and most are worth a try. Topping the list are firm, sweet yet salty, white anchovies brined in olive oil and brightened with lemon and parsley. The tiny, silvery white fish are delicious eaten right off the plate and even better when piled on a slice of the pizza bianco.
But I’d take a pass on the pastry puffs filled with salmon mousse served with a small mound of undressed, chopped endive and sweet cherry tomatoes. The pastry was delicate and the mousse rich and well seasoned, but chilling the appetizer resulted in limp puffs and an overly dense filling. The little bit of salad was more decorative than edible.
Hearty pastas are listed under "the comfort corner." There’s a lasagna al pesto "from Anna Grazia Ballerini’s treasure chest"; meat ravioli served with a tomato-based meat sauce or "Parmigiano" style; and baked ziti.
A daily offering is the cannelloni. Long pasta tubes are filled with a combination of ground veal, beef, turkey and pork (or a variation on the four) blended with ricotta and generously perfumed with shaved truffles. The dish is adorned with an unctuous bechamel sauce. More soothing than exciting, the pasta is a delicately flavored treat.
I doubt there’s a prettier dish than the pork tender loin stuffed with figs. The pale-pink fig center of the roast with its halo of white meat looks lovely sliced and fanned across a plate. Although the meat was a little dry (10 minutes less roasting time would have helped, so would an extra tablespoon of jus), the texture of the sweet, chewy fruit combined with the soft meat made a pleasant dish.
Desserts didn’t wow me. A cherry tart had a nice cake-like crust with plenty of tart fruit, but the glaze was gummy; a huge "drunken strawberry" soaking in a glass of rum and Triple Sec-splashed white Vin santo is too simple to call dessert, but would make a nice, sweet accompaniment to the cheese plate.
Minor complaints aside, I’d return to Aliseo Osteria del Borgo. The wine is good; the simple plates are satisfying; and the chef cares enough to gamble on new dishes each day and try for a grand performance every evening.
Aliseo Osteria del Borgo (665 Vanderbilt Avenue at Park Place in Prospect Heights) accepts cash only. Entrees: $7.50-$14.50. The restaurant serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Brunch is served on Sunday at 11 am. For reservations (parties of four or more), call (718) 783-3400.