Saturday, September 29, 2012

Falling, Yet Again

There are some restaurants that I have torrid affairs with. Hasty, hot passion. A short-lived infatuation that burns at the spark, and fizzles when something shinier and newer comes to the forefront of my consciousness.

Although it's fun to philander like this from time to time, nothing beats a restaurant romance that's in it for the long haul. A place that continues to remind you how beautiful a simple, uncomplicated love can be, and how fresh a relationship can remain with a few well-timed, strategic surprises.

(Patio, formal photo taken from their website)
For me, that restaurant is Verace in Islip, a lovely, modern Italian restaurant that I fall more and more in love with every time I have the pleasure of dining there.

Metropolitan swank, with a gorgeous outdoor patio and a minimalist, contemporary water feature running a clean long line through the space, the sophisticated ambience of Verace is immediately impressive. A well-considered space that serves as an introduction to the food is a staple of any Bohlsen Restaurant Group endeavor (Teller's and Prime being some of the more stunning examples of environment), and Verace's is exactly that. Hip, high-end, rich in detail but not trying too hard. Perfect.

For such an Italian island, you'd think that clean, pure Italian food can be found on any street. Great pizza certainly can. But at Verace, as its name implies, it's true Italian and not the bastardized Italian that Long Islanders have come to believe to be authentic, that is served. Prosciutto di Parma, speck, and porchetta fredi. Fig marmellata served alongside creamy burrata mozzarella, intriguing ricotta salata, and luxurious crescienza. And, the very best thing of all? House-made pasta. Boom. Done.

The simplicity of spaghetti with meatballs becomes a dream come true in its authentic form, clean San Marzano tomato sauce with fresh basil shredded atop perfectly al dente pasta that has the slightly soft egginess of pasta just rolled. The most humble, simple of Italian dishes becomes something of wonder in its simplicity and purity.

However, it wasn't this children's classic and traditional standby that brought me to Verace tonight. It was the First Taste of Fall menu.

A celebration of fresh, seasonal food, this inventive menu is a delight for even the most curmudgeon opponents of autumn. For someone who relishes the feel of crisp air with every breath, burrowing deep into hooded college sweatshirts, and the satisfying sound of zipping up a riding boot ... well, it's nothing short of glorious.

Creamy burrata mozzarella, perfectly seasoned and salted.
I quickly made reservations for this limited menu's debut, and was disappointed to have to wait 20 minutes for my reserved table to be cleared (but not as disappointed as I was in the surly service provided by the apathetic blonde). However, as a frequent visitor and Yelp Elite member, the manager was quick to send his apologies to this nondescript couple in jeans (us ... since it's only as casual or formal as you decide to make your night, one of the many appealing features of the restaurant) ... AND send a beautiful amuse bouche of luscious caprese salad to our table. Long wait forgotten!

Fungi can do no wrong when executed this well.
Anyway, we were already super excited about our meal, and had pored over the menu prior to coming in. The appetizers were already a head-scratcher, with such delicious options that made an un-premeditated ordering unimaginable. Light pumpkin and crumbled sausage ultra-thin crust pizza with warm ricotta, baked red onions, and fresh baby arugula. Beautifully pillowy fresh gnocchi, tossed with abandon in a light, herb-infused vermouth sauce with thick-cut, pan-seared pancetta and adorable little chanterelles. Cream of oyster and shittake mushroom soup, pureed with a healthy dollop of truffle oil and accented with chopped chives.
Flame-baked thin-crust pizza.

We decided, Why decide? And chose them all.

As a main course, scallops with asparagus puree and lemon zest sounded light and season-appropriate. Veal, beef, and mortadella ravioli with mascarpone cheese in a sage butter sauce would have been appealing if not for the mortadella. But the veal cheeks braised in a Mission fig demi glace with sweet carrots won the day for Boy, and I couldn't resist the call of butternut squash and spinach lasagna ... especially when I passed by the fired oven and saw the cheese melting on cast-iron skillets of hefty slices.
Meat is never done justice with iPhone flash.

The braised cheeks were impossibly tender, with only a delicate smattering of carrots and a whole roasted fig to round out the simply presented plate. The flavor was balanced and sweet and savory all at once.

My butternut squash and spinach lasagna, however, was a study in luxury.  Calorie counting was clearly out of the question tonight, with the heavy gnocchi leading the path to sin. Fresh spinach was nestled into whipped ricotta, sandwiched between wavy layers of lasagna noodles. Perfectly uniform cubes of roasted butternut squash peeked out of every cut, the light scent of nutmeg steaming out from under the crisp melted cheese. A thick cream sauce of Asiago, parmesan, and shallots made the entire thing a rich, heady mess. Now, I rarely ever choose to go primarily vegetarian in prix fixes, but this was one instance where value of doing so was never questioned.
You never even miss the meat.

One would think dessert might be anticlimactic after all that cream, pancetta, cheese, gourd, and mushrooms, but the classic candied apple looked pretty awesome. However, the pumpkin cheesecake on a pecan crumb crust with hand-whipped cream, a smattering of cinnamon, and a candied pecan garnish was really the cherry on top. Luscious and creamy, and far richer than their usual more grainy ricotta cheesecake, the pumpkin flavor was subtle, it was absolutely perfect.

I was wowed by Verace the first time I went there. I'm wowed every time I go for my classic favorites. But more impressively, I'm wowed by their adventurousness, their special menus that continue to pleasantly surprise, and the consistently excellent service from the night manager, who rewards Yelpers and is the epitome of professional hospitality. For these reasons and more to come, I'm sure, my love for Verace will continue to grow with the years.

Dense, doughy-soft gnocchi.

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