I treated myself on the last day before classes started with a busy but fun day running around Manhattan with a friend, going to SoHo for brunch and then looking at the Matisse exhibit at the MoMA. All of that walking left us a bit tired and in the mood for a nice Italian dinner in Little Italy. Unbelievably this was the first time I had gone down to Little Italy since coming to Columbia, though I did go there a few years ago, and it’s really sad that it’s constantly shrinking (thanks, Chinatown), but it has retained its quaint charm and evidently its good food– we had fruit tarts from La Bella Ferrara, but more on that later. But how’s a person to choose from the dozens of cute little Italian restaurants lined up along Mulberry Street, each with a store-owner standing outside trying to get customers to come in? Simple answer: Yelp. And Yelp took us to Pellegrino’s, a restaurant like the others from the outside, with the exception of a sign on the sidewalk proclaiming themselves to be the Zagat-rated “best restaurant in Little Italy.”
It wasn’t busy when we went in because it was still fairly early for dinner, but the waiters were very attentive and sat us down immediately at a table by the window. The restaurant was dimly lit and had a nice relaxing atmosphere, which was pleasant after a long day of walking. There was a bit of a distracting mess in front behind the counter, but the mess actually made the restaurant feel more homey. The décor was still pretty cute with the oil paintings and reminded me somewhat of Europe.
They started us off with a basket of two different breads, one with a parmesan-garlic crust on top and the other a simple baguette. The parmesan-garlic bread was probably the lightest, airiest and fluffiest bread I’ve ever eaten, and the cheese and herbs combined to make for excellent flavoring, but I had wished that there would have been more of a toasted quality to the bread. It would have been so much better if the outside edges and top were crispy instead of just soft; I would have appreciated the extra aroma and different texture. Plus it wasn’t that warm either, so it definitely wasn’t straight from the oven. The baguette had a crust that wasn’t too crunchy or tough, and the inside was soft and silky when combined with the not-so-spreadable butter. But again, it wasn’t super warm, so it had probably been sitting outside of the oven for a while before it got to our table.
Onto the main course. I was in the mood for some pasta, and the waiter said that most people really enjoy the rigatoni alla vodka, so that’s what I ended up ordering. The portion was enormous; I ended up taking home half of it. As always with a pasta dish, the first thing I checked for was the texture, and it was cooked to a pretty good al-dente consistency. Rigatoni are a traditional southern and central Italian pasta that’s shaped like a tube with ridges, and the tube shape enables some sauce to get inside each individual pasta, which makes for an interesting eating experience. When I ate my rigatoni, each bite had an unexpected but fun burst of sauce and flavor; because rigatoni are slightly bigger than other forms of tubed pasta like penne, more sauce got inside the tubing, and so the burst of sauce was more pronounced. The sauce was creamy but not overly so, and had some tomato and basil flavors to it. It had a bit of graininess to it, but it was still smoother than most sauces I’ve had, indicating that it was well-blended and freshly made, since the oils and other ingredients were not separated by density yet. I liked the slight piquancy that the black pepper they later added to my dish gave to the overall flavor. However, the bits of sausage mixed with the sauce, while giving the dish a nice variety in texture, didn’t taste very fresh, and thus made the rest of the dish taste less fresh. The prosciutto was better and provided a honeyed sweetness with a brief sharp saltiness, and those flavors prevented the creaminess of the sauce from becoming too heavy. The best addition to the dish was definitely the mushrooms. I’m an absolute sucker for anything with mushrooms in it, and these were fresh, flavorful, and bursting with juice with every bite. I would say that the mushrooms defined the dish.
For a first official Italian dinner in the city, Pellegrino’s was okay, though I’ve definitely had better pasta before. They lose points for the lack of crispiness in the bread and the almost stale taste of the sausage bits in the pasta. Call me picky, but I felt that they didn’t use the absolute freshest ingredients that they could have, and I’m not too sure if their rigatoni were handmade. However, the cozy and laid-back atmosphere make it a good place for a family dinner or a date night.
Rating: 3.75/5 spoons