Tuscan Lunch on the Cheap
I've already written about the panini at Cippola Rossa. I'm giving them another plug because since my panini post they've instituted a lunch special, and it's such a deal. For $10.95 you get an appetizer (from a choice of four), any pasta on the menu, and coffee or tea. An extra $4 scores you any entree on the menu. These are not scaled-down, lunch-size portions; they're full dinner portions. And we're talking good, authentic Tuscan food.
Of course there are some misses, but in general the food ranges from good to very good. The only real crime against food was the painfully oversalted broccoli rabe served with one of my main courses. You'd think the natural bitterness of the green would mitigate the need for very much salt at all; in fact, lemon juice is probably a better idea.
The appetizer choices are Caesar salad, eggplant Tuscan-style, grilled calamari, or a half panino of your choice. My first time at the lunch special I tried the calamari, and it was fabulous. Fresh, flavorful and perfectly cooked, with garlic and olive oil, served over a bed of wilted arugala.
My main course was the pappardelle al cinghiale (pappardelle with wild boar ragu). The fresh pasta was cooked to a perfect chewiness (I've suffered through many overcooked pappardelles and tagilatelles) and the thick ragu was studded with the juniper berries traditional to the Tuscan wild boar ragu. Unfortunately, I don't think the flavors had properly married, so something was missing flavorwise. The "American coffee" that comes with the special was a pleasant surprise. Served in a Lavazza cup that's small by U.S. standards, but common in Italy, it seemed to be a true Italian "Americano"--good espresso with hot water added.
My next time at Cippola Rossa I was joined by fellow blogger Dave Cook. I was so enamored of the calamari that I ordered it again, and Dave ordered the so-called half panino of wild boar sausage, broccoli rabe and pecorino that seemed like a full-size panino to me. This time I decided to go for the splurge and ordered an entree instead of a pasta, the polpettone di cinghiale (wild boar meatloaf). I'd been interested in this dish since I had started lunching there. It was hearty with an interesting sweetness to it, and served with a side of mashed potatoes. Game is central to Tuscan cuisine, and Cippola Rossa's predecessor at this location, Cantina Toscana, specialized in it. The photos Dave and I were taking aroused the interest of our waiter, who it turns out was also the chef, and had been the chef at the decidedly more upscale Cantina Toscana. I had a taste of lasagna-lover Dave's "La Vera" Lasagna, a version with a red meat sauce and bechamel, and a good rendition.
For my third lunch special I resisted the calamari as I wanted to experience more of the menu. This time I tried the eggplant, which the lunch menu describes as eggplant Parmigiana, but turned out not to be the dish we normally associate with the name. This eggplant had a sprinkling of Parmigiano on top, and if breaded it was only lightly so. Like the ragu, something seemed to be missing in the flavor department, and it was a bit of a disappointment. I did like the cute sandwich shape of the thing, though.
My main course was accompanied by the aforementioned too-salty broccoli rabe (incidentally, the Italian name is broccoli di rape, and "rabe" was adopted by American greengrocers to mitigate the consumer's discomfort at seeing the word "rape" attached to a vegetable--much as rapeseed oil was renamed canola). Happily, the pork shank (stinco di maiale) offered no cause for complaint. Served with a light brown sauce, it was a humongous, rich, moist, delicious hunk of meat.
So there are a few things about Cippola Rossa that could bear improvement, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a better lunch deal if you find yourself on the lower Upper East Side. Just make sure you have plenty of time, as service can be slow, as in Italy slow.
1109 1st Ave (Between 60th & 61st St)