The word “unique” is very specific: one of a kind (you can’t be “sort of unique” or “very unique”), and I use it deliberately to describe the marvelous new Sicily Osteria in New York’s Theater District. Open just three weeks (replacing Brazil, Brazil), it has a delightful outdoor section of greenery (not one of those decrepit sheds on the street) and inside, two rooms as close to a true. hostaria as you’ll find, but more warmly lighted, with brass table lambs, good linens and wineglasses, vintage china, tile floors and washed brick walls that make it look as rustic as any restaurant in Taormina. Out back there are tables under a skylight. There is also a large photos of the owners’ beloved mama. Loud music does not intrude.
Décor alone does not make Sicily Osteria unique but its commitment by owners Enrico and Robert Malta of the New York City Restaurant Groupo to serve rigorously authentic Sicilian food in New York does. In recent years the food media have noted a return to favor of “red sauce” Italian-American restaurants along with some places that purport to be Sicilian. (The downtown Eataly flirted with southern Italian food but has now switched to Tuscan). But Sicily Osteria has an all-Sicilian menu that takes into account the significant varieties of cooking on the big island, from Palermo to Catania, from Agrigento to Siracusa.
The Maltas have, since arriving in the States in 1962, run numerous Italian restaurants, including Bocca di Bacco and Puttanesca. Here they’ve gone full tilt with their native cuisine, and while co-Chef Asi Maman was born in Israel, he’s worked most of his career in Italian kitchens including some of New York’s finest like Marea and Osteria Morini, while co-Chef Heather. Pelletier adds another dimension acquired from her tenures at Vaucluse and Chumley’s.
The restaurant’s motto is the family’s: “Si Mangia Bene, Si Paga Poco”—“eat well, but spend a little”—based on the best products available. Sicily Osteria is not cheap, with pastas $18-$26 (about the same as Orso next door) but nowhere close to the prices at Marea and Ai Fiori. A 14-ounce bistecca here is just $38. And there are dozens of wines under $60 a bottle.
The first category on the menu is called “La Strada,” meaning foods of the street, which includes these wonderful little puffs of pannelle ($7) chickpea fritters with lemon and fresh herbs that you will gobble up. There is also an antipasto duo of crudi ($16) composed of raw red tuna dashed with limoncello, nuts and seeds, and bass with a sweet pepper relish scented with mint. Gently grilled octopus ($16) comes with wild rice, pignoli and a balance of sour lemon and sweet cherries. The pizzas are available in Sicilian or the ubiquitous thin crust style, and the former is a perfect example of the island’s puffy, yeasty soft crusted variant, best with eggplant and tomato.
Every pasta I tasted ranked among the best of its kind in New York and very close to what I’ve had in Sicily, including Palermo’s classic, paccheri alla norma ($18), named after the Bellini opera that debuted in that capital city, with tender eggplant, vibrant tomato and ricotta salata. Busiate alla Trapanese ($18) has a sauce of roasted tomato and an almond pesto, basil and pecorino, while squid-ink black. linguine ($24) is abundant with clams and artichoke and a sprinkling of mint. Their lasagna Sicily style ($22) is a generous layering of pasta sheets with sweet and hot sausage, broccoli di rabe and a luscious tomato béchamel.
Main dishes (secondi) in Sicily tend to be simple, although the oozing parmigiana di melanzane ($20) is rich indeed. Like every other Italian restaurant in New York, there is the requisite grilled. branzino ($32) but a more western Sicilian choice is the pesce spada(swordfish) with a diced eggplant-pepper caponata ($32) with tangy-sweet flavor.
Sicilians have always made some of the country’s best desserts, and here you see why: Crunchy house-made cannoli ($10) contain sweet ricotta, Amarena cherry and bits of dark chocolate, while “Mount Etna” is a pistachio lava cake with a fig. gelato ($13), and torta settevelli is a seven-layer Nutella-like chocolate hazelnut mousse cake ($13) well worth sharing. Espresso, by the way, is well rendered (if you ask it to be).
Theater District restaurants have a history of rushed in-and-out customers before the seven o’clock curtain, and I trust Sicily Osteria will make give them a good meal before they dash off to a show. But that just means the rest of us can bask in the moment after they all leave and we can enjoy a meal in a more relaxed mode. Sicily Osteria is a place to linger over your food, sip your wine and be assured that you are dining on food difficult to find this well-made anywhere else in New York. And if you snag a table outside, you might dine beneath a New York moon and, starting around 9 PM, watch the wonderful and colorful bustle of people exiting the theaters after seeing Phantom of the Opera or The Lion King. It’s a very happy, very New York place to be. As Alicia Keys sings, “One hand in the air for the big city/Street lights, big dreams, all looking pretty/No place in the world that can compare.”
330 West 46th Street
Open nightly for dinner.