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Monday, April 11, 2011

When Rada Met Max....That's Amore!

Max Restaurant

51 Avenue B, East Village
New York, NY 10009
I miss Italy! My friends say I sound like a broken record, but I still continue to utter this phrase weekly. Studying abroad in Italy was quite the palate awakener. You just can’t find the same sharp distinct taste of pecorino cheese, pasta actually cooked al dente, or those rich, authentic meaty ragus here in the States. Or so I thought…then Max came into my life. Max filled the void and went above and beyond typical satisfaction. Max is a restaurant by the way, and a very good one!
Upon arrival at Max Restaurant, I made my way to the back of the “cash-only” trattoria where Luigi the chef, wine director and co-owner of Max, greeted me with a smile from ear to ear. Luigi does it all! For a Wednesday night this restaurant was bustling with customers. My guests and I settled into our wooden booth, ready for the wonderful Iasilli family recipes to come.
The Melanzane a Funghetto (fried eggplant in a thick herb-filled tomato sauce) was so buttery and creamy it melted instantly upon entering my mouth. When I asked what the best dish on the menu was, I was informed it was Lasagna. I was not overly excited to hear this. Lasagna on an Italian menu for me is like a black dress in a closet: a go to when nothing else appeals to me or fits the bill. Usually I lean towards a sparkly ensemble or red dress, or in this case some different meat stew or unusual pasta offering, but if this is Luigi’s best dish, I decided I’d order it.

Max's Lasagna is Served in a Clay Pot
Soon a warm clay pot arrived tableside, and the aroma of tomato sauce and pungent cheese enveloped the surrounding area. The meaty pasta layers with béchamel sauce were scrumptious. I asked, “Why the béchamel? Isn’t lasagna normally prepared with ricotta or mozzarella cheese?”  Chef Luigi explained in his accent-rich English that in typical Italian fashion, lasagna originally was made with béchamel cream sauce, not different cheeses. Like many “Italian” dishes served in the states, such as Penne alla Vodka or Fettuccine Alfredo, the cheese was incorporated into this dish over time. It wasn’t in the original recipes. No wonder Italians stay thin! Their Italian food is a completely different animal from our “American-Italian” food conversions!
The home-style bowls of pastas brimming with rich lamb ragu and “Max’s Tomato Meat Sauce” flew out of the kitchen. My favorite dish of the evening was the Porcini Ravioli in truffle oil. In a word… spectacular. I love garlic, but according to Luigi, not one clove of garlic was used in this plate full of goodness. The parsley, heavy cream, and porcini mushrooms in this dish were the perfect combination of ingredients, brought to life with a dash of truffle oil.

Amazing Ravioli by Chef Luigi
While Italian old-school music played merrily in the background, and the Aglianico wine flowed, (specially imported from a region of Italy, near Naples where Luigi was born), we listened to Luigi explain how the name Max came to be. As a boy in Italy, Luigi enjoyed reading the life-style magazine Max. He concentrated on all the wonders of the United States shown in the magazine, specifically NYC. “It was a big deal, America!” Luigi exclaimed. Upon coming to the states and opening his restaurant, it only seemed fitting to name it after his childhood best read, all about the city which he’d finally made it to! Today, Max has been open for 11 years and the menu has not changed at all, nor have the prices. That is the beauty of this family-owned trattoria. Like Italy itself, nothing changes no matter how much time passes. Why mess with perfection? Or as the saying goes, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it!”

Creamy Panna Cotta
Next a glass filled with Tiramisu was served along with the creamiest Panna Cotta I‘ve ever tasted. The Tiramisu was light and fluffy with a touch of lemon zest, while the Panna Cotta was a taste sensation, beckoning me to spoon it all right up. Of course I gave in, and couldn’t put my spoon down for more than a minute before scooping again and again. The panna cotta, thick and not overly sweet, was the perfect finale to this great show. I suddenly felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz; like I wasn’t in New York anymore.  My visit to Max had me expecting to see the familiar cobble stone streets of Italy as I stepped outside. But alas…I was still in New York.
As if we didn’t eat enough at the table, Luigi sent us all home with the restaurant’s imported Bufala Mozzarella to nosh on the next day. We might as well have been

Chef Luigi Demonstrates the "way" to eat the Eggplant
leaving Luigi’s “Nonna Carmellea’s” house, Luigi’s beloved grandmother who was the mentor of his cuisine. With Doggy Bags in hand, happily filled, and thoroughly hugged and kissed goodbye, we made our way back to reality. As we pulled away from the curb, I looked back over my shoulder at Max Restaurant and thought, “I don’t even have to click my red Tori Birch flats three times together to bring myself back to Italy; I can just head downtown to the softly lit Max Restaurant anytime I want.” Hope to see you there soon!

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