At Giano, A Real Love of Food

DSC_0018M.J. Gonzalez Giano, 126 East Seventh Street.

One morning not long ago, Paolo Rossi, the co-owner of Giano, an Italian restaurant at 126 East Seventh Street, was having his coffee when he was struck by an inspiration for “a new caprese for 2011.” The caprese is a classic Italian sandwich with tomato and mozzarella.  Paolo is fond of the classics but also, as a worldly Milanese, of the newest of the new. The caprese of 2011, now available on Giano’s menu,  would feature a basil-flavored soft bun wrapped around a paper-thin slice of tomato and buffala mozzarella ice cream.

After more than 10 years in New York, Paolo’s English is pretty good, but I thought I had misheard him. Ice cream? “It’s a ‘Wow’ effect,” Paolo explained. “I can ask Simone to make you one.” Simone Bonelli is Giano’s new chef.  He had, Paolo proudly told me, “worked seven years next to the number six chef in Italy” and had recently left the terribly pricey Per Bacco to cook at Giano. It was the middle of the afternoon, and Simone had just arrived on his Vespa; his  helmet, bright orange with a white racing stripe, was sitting on Giano’s curving, fan-shaped white bar. I felt like I had walked into a Fellini movie.

A few minutes later, Matteo Niccoli, Paolo’s partner, issued from the kitchen bearing a plate with two neo-capresi. The buns were as green as oobleck; the gelato had just begun to ooze from the edges; the orange curl of tomato completed the color scheme of the Italian flag. I bit in. It was astounding: cold ice cream against warm bread, first the sweet cream and then the salt of the mozzarella, the slight acidity of the tomato, and the over-all vegetable aroma of the basil. The sensations arrived in sequence, and then hovered as a brief, lovely harmony. I said I would just have one. Then I had the other.

Since there are approximately as many Italian restaurants in New York as there are New Yorkers, it takes a serious effort to stand out. The basil-and-gelato re-imagination of the capresecould serve as Giano’s signature dish. “Giano” is Italian for Janus, the god who looks forward and back, and thus symbolizes the restaurant’s unusual format, which Paolo describes as “molecular cooking and traditional flavors.” When I first dined there, about two years ago, Giano had two menus on facing pages, one for traditional food and the other for avanguardia; now the two share the same page.

DSC_0025M.J. Gonzalez The newest caprese sandwich on the menu at Giano features a basil-flavored soft bun wrapped around a paper-thin slice of tomato and buffala mozzarella ice cream.

Thus you can, if you’re that kind of boring diner, order a lasagna or vitello tonnato — or you could order a cuttlefish salad with a frozen tomato water foam, which Paolo says has the texture of a softened granita. On my last visit I had, as an entrée, a parmesan crème brulee, prepared exactly like the traditional dessert save with a little pool of balsamic vinegar on the side to blunt the sweetness of the sugar cane used to caramelize the surface. Although curried pasta is no longer on the menu, as it used to be, I did order the tortelloni with sheep ricotta, pecorino and nettles, this last ingredient lending to the dish a slightly uncanny, musky flavor.

Possibly the most vivid flavor at Giano, however, is Paolo, who keeps his graying hair pulled back into a ponytail like an overage Aquarian and sometimes wears slightly obscene t-shirts. Girls figure prominently in his conversation. When I asked why he had first come to New York, Paolo sighed, “For love.” And then he added, “It was a lot of girlfriends ago.” Paolo looked out the window and saw a young woman he knew; he blew her a kiss, and she smiled and waved back. “Love is the key,” Paolo said, in reference to running a restaurant, but perhaps also as a broader statement of principle.

Paolo says that he is careful to respect the privacy of guests who want to be left alone, but in my experience he requires very little encouragement to sit at your table and help you decide what to eat or drink. The other evening, I asked what we should drink with dinner, and he said, “Oh, is for you to decide. It’s how you feel when you read the names on the list, when you think about the characteristics.” Then he interrupted himself to tell a story about a wine he had once ordered with dear friends and adored, and then ordered again a week later with not-so-dear friends, and didn’t like at all. Love is the key.

Okay, I said, but what should I drink? The Rosso di Toscana, Paolo said. Of course I did what I was told. It was perfect.

Giano, 126 East Seventh Street, 212-673-7200,