Note: Falai closed in August 2011. The chef, Iacopo Falai, cited changes in the neighborhood, implying that the upscale clientele the restaurant catered to was no longer coming to the Lower East Side. The space is now Pig and Khao.
It’s a sad consequence of Frank Bruni’s blatant Italian bias, that when he delivers a rave review of an Italian restaurant, I promptly ignore it. Of course, sometimes I’ve been to those restaurants already, and sometimes I go for other reasons. But I’d never choose an Italian place on his recommendation.
So it was with Falai, which received the deuce from Frankie two-stars in June 2005. Duly noted and ignored. Then, about a month ago, we walked into Falai Panetteria when a reservation at another place fell through. We were surprised at how good it was, which made us think that perhaps the mother ship deserved Frank’s deuce after all.
The chef at both places (and a third in Soho, to which we haven’t been) is Iacopo Falai, a former Le Cirque pastry chef. Here, at his main restaurant, he serves a focused Italian menu of just five appetizers ($12–16), seven pastas ($13–19), and six entrées ($25–27). The small semi-open kitchen probably can’t accommodate any more.
The all-white décor would be tough on the eyes if the lights were turned up, but the staff wisely keeps them dim. The narrow-but-deep room is a typical Lower East Side storefront. The floor tile looks at first as if it could be original, but then you notice that it embed’s Falai’s logo (above right). The staff all dress smartly, imparting an upscale vibe that makes the place feel like it belongs elsewhere.
Fortunately for Falai, diners don’t seem to mind visiting a fancy restaurant that is across the street from a pawn shop. On a Saturday evening, women were wearing their high heels and fancy summer dresses. At 8:00 p.m., the dining room was empty, as most diners had chosen to sit in the outdoor garden out back. But by 9:00 the room was mostly full.
The white interior gave my camera fits. Shots with flash looked like nuclear winter, so I shot in ambient light, which played havoc with contrast and color balance. The amuse-bouche (right) was much better than the photo shows. I believe it was yogurt and roe with a pea-shoot broth poured table-side.
Of our appetizers, we were most impressed with Pici ($18; above left), with egg-less pasta, Italian cinnamon sausage, Brussels sprouts, and pecorino cheese. It was both an unusual and an intensely flavored dish. Gnudi ($16; above right) were an excellent rendition of a classic, with ricotta cheese, baby spinach.
Branzino wrapped in zucchini ($26; above left) was the more impressive entrée. It tasted as lovely as it looked. In contrast, Peking duck breast, or Anatra ($27; above right) was pedestrian. The skin had neither the crispness nor the spicy taste of traditional Peking duck, and the little dollops of ingredients scattered on the plate weren’t properly integrated into the dish. It’s a pity that the most expensive item on the menu is also the least interesting.
Pre-dessert was a tiny panna cotta (above left). We don’t normally order a dessert, but as it’s Chef Falai’s speciality we couldn’t resist. Profiteroles ($10; above right) were terrific.
To drink, we had a 2003 Copertino from the Puglia region of Italy ($52), with which we were perfectly satisfied. Service throughout the evening was attentive and polished.
Falai (68 Clinton Street between Rivington & Stanton Streets, Lower East Side)