By Suzanne Parker
However, if they are busy at the counter, you will have to seek someone out and indicate that you are there for table service. Once that connection is made, you will be shown to the back room, a simple but stylish dining room. If you don't ask, you could probably go in and order pizza any number of times without suspecting there was another dimension to this establishment.
The back room looks appealing enough, with wine bottles being the prevailing decorative theme. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, they had some unresolved ventilation issues with their system that left no middle ground between stuffy and gale force winds. Once they get that problem sorted out, as well as some acoustic issues, it will be a nice setting for a gratifying Italian meal.
The greatest strength of this restaurant is the versatility of the use of their wood burning brick oven. Not just reserved for pizza, there is a selection of appetizers called “tegamino” (casseroles) and other dishes which utilize the oven, capitalizing on the unique flavor and texture it imparts.
Whether you're patronizing the back room for dinner or the front room for a snack, one specialty absolutely not to be missed is the Focaccia Robiola, a thin, crispy focaccia filled with Robiola cheese and truffle oil. Robiola is a cheese of the Stracchino family that is thought to have originated in Lombardy. It resembles cream cheese in color and texture and has a pleasingly tangy flavor. This preparation is such a signature of Thirty-one that when it escaped our notice on the menu, we were treated to one on the house. We were grateful to have our oversight corrected.
Our other starters included a tossed salad (Insalata di Stagione) which was overly salty, and a Tegamino ai Frutti di Mare, a daily special. The seafood tegamino was a casserole consisting of calamari, shrimp and scallops baked with tomatoes and sauce in the brick oven. The seafood was abundant and the sauce flavorful. The brick oven added that “extra something” to the flavor.
Pasta selections range from the familiar to the imaginative. We tried Ravioli con Spinachi (spinach ravioli served with vodka sauce) and Tagliolini con Gamberetti e Arugula (homemade square spaghetti w/shrimp tomato and arugula.) The ravioli were filled with a mixture of spinach and cheese, and the sauce was luscious. The spaghetti with shrimp was well-balanced with just the right hints of sweet, sharp and bitter notes playing off each other.
For our “secundi piatti” we chose one meat and one fish. Our meat entrée was Vitello Ripeino con prosciutto – veal cutlet stuffed with eggplant, oven-dried tomato, mozzarella, served with zucchini and mashed potatoes. Unfortunately this very appealing dish arrived overdone and dry as a result. It would have benefited greatly from a little less time in the oven. The accompaniments were outstanding. I'm not a zucchini-lover, but I loved their zucchini, and their mashed potatoes were wonderful (although probably a million calories).
We also tried their “Pesce del Giorno,” striped bass that was baked in the brick oven. It was wonderfully moist and fresh tasting, proving that simple preparations, if perfectly done, are often the best.
The Bottom Line
Dinner at this establishment can be as casual or inclusive as the diner chooses with both a full menu of Italian specialties, and the brick oven pizza menu to choose from. Thirty-one, only a little over two months old, is still something of a work in progress with tremendous promise. There are still some kinks to be worked out, but the excellence of many of the dishes make it worth bearing with them until they achieve all that they are obviously striving for.
22-48 31 St., Astoria
Fax: 718 728-8710
Cuisine: Nuovo Italian
Setting: Hidden back room, spartan but pleasant
Service: Well intentioned, but needs polish
Hours: L&D daily
Reservations: Wouldn't hurt on weekends
Credit cards: The usual
Children: Welcome. Pizza is always a safe bet.
Noise level: Noisy when busy
Private parties: Yes
Take out: Yes
Handicap access: Yes
Insalata Caprese (homemade mozzarella tomato and basil w/ olive oil & Balsamic vinegar)…$8
Tegamino ai Frutti di Mare (baked seafood casserole, a daily special)…$9.50
Ravioli con Spinachi…$12.50
Gamberetti e Arugula (homemade square spaghetti w/shrimp tomato and arugula.)…$12.50
Pesce del Giorno (fish of the day, baked in the brick oven)…M.P.
Polletto al Forno a Legna (baby chicken roasted in the brick oven)…$16.50
Focaccia Robiola…$10/$14 (12″/14″)
Pizza Thirty-one (w/tomato sauce, oven dried tomato, wild mushrooms, mozzarella, prosciutto, artichokes)…$9/$11.25 (12″/14″)