Monday, January 08, 2007

Let Me Get Right to the Ponte

When it comes to eating, I love all my basics- a nice dish of macaroni, maybe some chicken cutlets, and of course pizza; but even the Big Guy can’t live on pizza alone- believe me, I’ve tried.

Now, in my mind, stepping out for any reason in New York is a reason to get “dressed”; And even more if you’re stepping out for a good meal; at least a button down and some nice slacks- all those tourists in sneakers and backpacks can really kill the mood. (Side note: in Southern Cal, everybody seems to think jeans are appropriate dinner wear. Trust me, no matter how much you paid for them, jeans are rarely ever acceptable dinner wear.) When I’m looking to keep things a little “Uptown” without having to go Uptown, I like to head over to F.Illi Ponte.

During the summer, the time to sit down is just ahead of sunset. As the sun reflects off the River, Jersey actually makes a decent backdrop (I knew it was good for something!). During the winter, sunset is way too early, so any time after dark will do.

F.illi Ponte is a great place; I hope I don’t ruin my chances at getting a table so easily by talking it up too much! I really am a big fan of this place, and on so many levels.

First, the restaurant is gorgeous- all exposed brick and open archways. The staff is great, too: attentive without being over your shoulder and rushing you through every plate. Every time I’ve been here, I get treated like a regular, from my first visit all the way through to the most recent (which hasn’t been recent enough, by the way!).

Let’s sit down and get started. Now, right off the bat, I’ll tell you: the menu at Ponte is great and you really can’t miss with anything it offers but, listen, they don’t call ‘em “specials” for nothing! Pay close attention to the waiter and don’t be afraid to try something new. Before you can get to that, though, they hit you with some great bread to get the ball rolling. It is always fresh, and it doesn’t just taste that way because they warmed it. But the real kicker is this- they also set you up with a nice plate of fresh mozz and some eggplant caponata. Not from the jar either- this stuff is like my Aunt Maria makes. Talk about starting you off in the right direction!!

Their steady menu always reflects some seasonal changes and I usually find myself hard pressed to figure out what to start with. Broccoli rabe and sausage, always a good choice, or maybe a plate of Littlenecks. But I’ll tell you what, if you catch them in season absolutely go with the squash blossoms- a winner every time.

Next, if we’re gonna do this right (and when it comes to food, we’re always gonna do our best to get it right), we need to work in some pasta for a real first dish, at least a half order of something. Maybe a simple dish, like a little Ziti al Pomodoro or a some Linguine Aglio e Olio. Most people would say “Sure, that’s it, keep it light- there’s more to follow”. Not me, though. I always go straight for the goods. Like maybe some fresh Gnocchi or Ravioli, especially if it’s a plain cheese rav. Last time I had those here, the macaroni was unbelievably tender and it was filled with a creamy, rich, almost liquid center that had to be a combination of ricotta and b├ęchamel. The delicate shell of macaroni played beautifully off the rich interior. It was topped with a ragout of duck that must have been slow-cooked all day over a flame no hotter than a match. I mean, this was the perfect combination of tender meat and tomato, with a hint of wine behind it. I can still feel the textures of that dish, and almost even taste it...

Ok- here is where we slow it down a little. It would really be a waste to rush a meal like this, so let’s take this moment to pause for a brief intermission. This is the perfect time to sit back with a little wine (some Villa Antinori Chianti, if I get my way, or on an extra special night it could be Brunello di Montalcino), maybe pick at a little green salad, with some vinegar and oil, just to break things up a little. Take a little time and think about the great meal you are in the middle of, from the bread and caponata down to that last leaf you just ate. Enjoy the company of those fortunate enough to be with you that evening. Let the whole thing sink in and leave an impression on you that will last till the next time you can come back. The second act is about to start, and if you planned it right, it’s gonna be a killer.

This is where I get a little picky. (OK, OK- the picky thing didn’t really start here) Like I said, the menu here is great. Who could argue with a Veal chop with mushrooms and a little Marsala? Or maybe a thirty ounce T-Bone? Even a little Aragosta all’Arabbiata, their signature dish, might be nice. And the specials are, well, “eexxxtra special”. And for most anyone out there, this would be enough. Not for me though; I’m not that easy. I remember when I was growin’ up, Mom would make one thing for dinner and I wanted another; she’d tell me “Whaddaya think this is, a restaurant?” Hey Ma, tonight, it is!! So, anyway, I like to see if I can go off the menu a little. Don’t be afraid to ask for something you like if you don’t see it; I can’t remember ever being turned down on a reasonable special request. For example, I love Veal Saltimbocca and there are a couple of places that never fail to make it for me; it’s perfect, but off the menu. Not here though. At Ponte, I always ask if they might be able to fix me a dish of Chicken Scarpariello. This dish is one of my favorites and it is one of those dishes they make exceptionally well here: sausage, potatoes, and chicken (on the bone is always the way to go with this one) in a light white wine sauce with onion, garlic and some hot and sweet peppers. Niiiice. Hey- I could make this at home. Sure, why not; but it’s so good here, I almost never do.

Alright, we’re down to the wire here and I hope you saved some room for dessert. What better way to finish this fine meal than with coffee and something sweet? After you have given everything a few minutes to settle down, get ready for your finale. Double espresso to start with, of course, and some Marie Brizzard on the side. Dessert, if I can manage it, always depends on the season. I love the Italian Cheesecake they make here… almost as good as Gramma’s ! (Don’t tell her I said that, or I’ll never see another slice in my life!!) But in the summer, nothing works as good as a little sorbet- lemon usually. Gives you a nice finish to a great meal.

While it may not be a place for dinner every night (I don’t know if my belt could take it), Ponte’s is the perfect place to spend three or four hours at dinner with good friends. Not a bad spot to stop in for a cocktail or two, either, and maybe catch a piece of a Yankee game.

No two ways about it, if you want to step out for a meal at a place that hits every mark- beautiful room, great staff, excellent view, and knock-out food, F.illi Ponte is where you need to go…‘Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

F.illi Ponte
39 Debrosses St (at West St)

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