By Suzanne Parker
In these uncertain times when we're all feeling the financial pinch in varying degrees, ways to save a buck are extra attractive. Assuming you're still dining out, you can choose to patronize modest ethnic restaurants that offer tasty value-priced meals in spartan surroundings. You can dispense with extra courses and check the right-hand menu column first. But if you're yearning for that big night out, we have a hot tip for a way to shave significant bucks off a very upscale dining experience. Sapori D'Ischia in Woodside, one of Queens' most highly regarded Italian eateries, offers a $30 prix fixe three-course dinner on Wednesdays.
Unlike some places that cobble together a special prix fixe menu, you get to choose an appetizer and an entrée from their regular menu (the only exclusions are their most expensive steak and the daily specials). Dessert, panna cotta or ice cream, is their choice.
Sapori D'Ischia began as seller of high-quality Italian specialty foods. They decided to open their space as a restaurant in the evenings, and more recently for lunch, by overlaying the accoutrements of their retail business with the trappings of a stylish Italian restaurant. If you peer behind the stage, where a live musician performs cheesily romantic renditions of golden oldies, you will see translucent plastic sheeting only partially disguising the hams hanging from hooks above a deli counter. Shelves around the dining area decoratively display an impressive selection of extra virgin olive oils, balsamic vinegars and imported pasta. The low lighting, mainly emanating from votive candles, transforms the grocery-store effect into something thoroughly charming.
Sapori D'Ischia means “tastes of Ischia,” a volcanic island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, at the northern end of the Gulf of Naples not far from the more famous Capri. The signature dish of the island is coniglio all Ischitana — braised rabbit. A little research turned up great disparities of opinion in what exactly what goes into the dish, but here it is braised with white wine, pancetta, cherry tomatoes, sautéed peas, onions and fried potatoes. The rabbit was braised in such a way that the exterior of the meat retained a delicious light crispness while the interior was soft and succulent.
As Ischia is an island, marine life has to play a significant role in its cuisine, and we were anything but disappointed by the monkfish. Rana pescatrice, “castello aragonese” as it is called here, is pinot-grigio-glazed monkfish with truffled cannellini stufata and sauteed escarole. In other words, the fish is served with a garlicky bean puree graced with thin slices of black truffles. The truffles melded with the other flavors to form something transcendent.
The two standout antipasti we found were the pureed artichokes and the carpaccio. Budino di carciofi is a mixture of pureed artichokes, pancetta and fire-roasted peppers that hits all the right notes of sour, sweet, salty and smoky. The carpaccio della Chiana is made with raw filet mignon, pantelleria capers and shaved black alba truffles. What's not to love?
Sapori's signature pasta, fettucini all'Antonio, prepared “table side” in a bowl of parmigiano reggiano, prosciutto di Parma and white truffle essence, is where the superior quality of their ingredients shines. Alternatively, gnocchi “samyamaria,” brick-oven-baked semolina gnocchi with San Marzano sun-dried tomato sauce and smoked mozzarella di bufala, makes a perfect pasta course for the indulgent. Of course, if you're doing the prix fixe, a pasta would either be instead of an entrée or ordered a la carte.
Individual molds of panna cotta, the eggless Italian custard, with a touch of raspberry sauce arrived as the sweet finale of our prix fixe evening.
The Bottom Line
The Wednesday prix fixe is a good deal, but be forewarned — you may have to ask for it. When we arrived on a recent Wednesday, we were simply presented with the regular menu. No mention of the prix fixe was made until we inquired. They also refuse to serve tap water, a practice we frown on, especially now that we are aware of the un-green implications of bottled water. When we were insistent, the waiter agreed to give us bottled water on the house, which turned out to be an open bottle not quite filled to the top. We can't help speculate whether that particular bottle of water was bottled under the nearest tap.
The service is prompt and professional, but vaguely condescending. At the end of the meal we tried to purchase some of the excellent olive oil that was served for dipping bread and our waiter flatly refused to facilitate the transaction, telling us to come back during retail hours. A subsequent call to the restaurant revealed that was not their normal policy — just the recalcitrant waiter's.
The deliciousness of the food, if not the graciousness of the service, will entice us back, and next time we won't leave without procuring a bottle of olive oil.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger's restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America's Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].
55-15 37th Ave.
Woodside, NY 11377
Setting: Stylishly gussied-up retail store
Hours: Lunch and dinner Tues.-Sat., dinner Sun., closed Mon.
Reservations: Accepted for parties of 4 or more
Alcohol: Wine and beer
Parking: Plentiful street parking
Children: No menu
Music: Live music most nights
Credit Cards: American Express
Noise Level: Acceptable
Handicap Accessible: Yes
A SAMPLE FROM THE MENU
Budino di carciofi … $10.50
Carpaccio della Chiana … $14
Fettucini all'Antonio … $21
Gnocchi “samyamaria” … $18
Coniglio all'ischitana … $26
Rana pescatrice “castello aragonese” … $25