A few weeks ago, one of Pete Wells’s reviews in the Times drew this plaintive comment: “Why can’t restaurants just serve regular food anymore?”
(That restaurant was Semilla, where your only option is a $75 mostly-vegetable tasting menu, with concoctions that some diners might find eccentric, like beets with bone marrow, or a cabbage sandwich.)
The comment was misguided: most NYC restaurants do serve what I assume was meant by “regular food”. They just aren’t as likely to get reviewed. For good or ill, critics exist to make news. The more straightforward the menu, the less there is to say about it.
That commenter would probably be happy at Florian Café, assuming he didn’t mind the prices, where you’re paying for more than just the “Spontaneous Italian” cuisine the website promises. You’re also getting walls decorated with imported Italian mosaic tiles, a white marble antipasto bar, and several larger-than-life cast bronze nudes in provocative poses. The owner himself, Shelly Fireman, made those statues, so you’re not allowed to dislike them.
Florian is the latest production from Fireman Hospitality Group, purveyor of assertively normal, mostly mediocre, restaurants such as Redeye Grill and Brooklyn Diner. (My short review of the latter, over a decade ago, is one of the oldest posts extant on this blog.) I don’t recall any of these establishments ever getting a New York Times review. Florian probably won’t either.
This is actually one of Shelly Fireman’s better restaurants, although that isn’t saying much. Genuine thought went into the menu. Offhand, I can’t think of another Italian restaurant serving Moretti’s stone-ground yellow polenta in cast-iron skillets, in a half-dozen preparations, suitable as side dishes or hot appetizers. The two we tried were excellent, and they sure aren’t rote copies of what other places are serving.
The overwheming menu offers about three times as many choices as it needs to, with more categories than you can shake a stick at. Soup, salad, and apptizer-like substances are generally $9–14, thin-crust pizzas $17–28.50, pastas (fatta in casa) $18–29, entrées $21–33. There is also a separate vegetarian menu (not shown on the website).
The house-made focaccia (above left) is a good start. There are three salads on the menu ($11–12, with numerous supplements offered). I think the salad shown above was the one captioned “Our Very Nice Salad,” with arugula, radicchio, endive, Anjou pear, and an apple-honey dressing.
We tried two of the aforementioned polenta pans, the Fiorentina ($12; above left) with mushroom ragu and truffle cream; and the Cotechino sausage ($11; above right), both excellent.
The Veal Parmigiana ($32; above) takes up a whole dinner plate, with the bone intact. Three people could share it. For all the attention it commands, it is merely average.
Early reviews mentioned a Chicken Calabrese Diavola for two, at $58. It must not have sold well, as it’s now offered in a solo portion ($29; above left), served with parmesan potatoes (above right). This is a solid dish, and certainly more impressive than the veal.
The large space appeared to be mostly full on a Wednesday evening. There were at least half-a-dozen hosts wandering the floor, ensuring every table is well cared-for. The efficient and knowledgeable servers seemed to be all-female, dressed in low-cut leotards that left little to the imagination.
Florian Café is certainly not a dining destination, but its “spontaneous Italian” cuisine is mostly well prepared, occasionally even clever, and fairly priced. It seems to be designed for that New York Times reader who can’t abide yet another vegetable-forward tasting menu served at a twelve-seat bar in Brooklyn.
Florian Café (225 Park Avenue South btwn 18th & 19th Streets, Gramercy/Flatiron)
Food: Straightforward Italian, with a few creative touches
Service: Solid, professional
Ambiance: A bit over the top, but not to the point of distraction