Last Saturday, Falai Panetteria helped turn a near disaster into one of the best casual meals we’ve had in quite a while. We had reservations elsewhere, but after our taxi driver took a wrong turn and got stuck in traffic he never should have been in, we were half-an-hour late. Just as he pulled up to the restaurant’s front door, the host called to say that they wouldn’t be able to accommodate us.
There may be a recession going on, but it hasn’t hit the Lower East Side. One restaurant after another was jammed—all except for poor THOR, which looked like it was ready to host a funeral. As we got to the corner of Rivington & Clinton, I saw Falai Panetteria with a couple of empty tables. I vaguely recalled that Falai was supposed to be good, so we walked in and were seated immediately. (Not that Falai Panetteria is doing badly: the remaining empty tables were taken within a few minutes.)
It turns out I had my Falai properties confused. There’s a fancy sit-down place down the street that got two stars from Frank Bruni in mid-2005. That’s the one I remembered, but Falai Panetteria is the casual follow-up that earned a rave from Peter Meehan in $25 & Under the following year.
Both Lower East Side restaurants, and a third that has since opened in SoHo, are the work of Iacopo Falai, a former pastry chef at Le Cirque 2000 who has graduated far beyond desserts. At Falai Panetteria, he can feed you all day long, from croissants and turnovers at breakfast, to sandwiches at lunch, to pastas and other hot entrées at dinner. It apparently does a lot of take-out business during the day, but there are also eight tables with space for around twenty diners. They take reservations, but it appeared to us that most of the clientele were walk-ins.
The menu is a short document, with five salads ($9–13), six antipasti ($5.50–14), three soups ($6–8), four pastas ($12–14), and just four entrées ($11–15). The restaurant was BYO when Meehan reviewed it for the Times, but it now has a beer & wine license. We had an enjoyable Chianti for around $40.
Of the pastas we tried, we liked best the squid ink tagliolini ($14; above right), with prawns, calamari, tomato sauce and red pepper. It had a strong, spicy flavor, without any of the ingredients overwhelming the others.
Pappardelle ($12; above left) caught my eye because it was supposed to include Brussels sprouts (one of my favorite vegetables), but there was barely a hint of that ingredient, and the dish seemed to be missing something.
For the entrée, we both had the veal meatballs (above left). I’ll allow myself the food-writer’s sin of calling them ethereal, because Peeter Meehan did too. They were soft, tender and buttery. If there’s a better meatball dish in town, we can’t imagine it. And they’re a whopping $11, up from $7 when Meehan reviewed them.
Naturally, there’s an abundant dessert menu, which we’d normally skip, but given Falai’s reputation we had to have one. Tiramisu ($5; above right) was wonderful, especially at the price.
For a restaurant this inexpensive, I cannot really complain about the service. There was a nice basket of bread and olive oil. Plates came out and were cleared at a reasonable pace. About the only solecism was the failure to replace silverware after the appetizers.
The space is one of those priceless Lower East Side storefronts, with an old tile floor, pressed tin ceiling, and chandeliers that probably date from the Hoover administration. For what it is, Falai Panetteria is a gem. Now we need to schedule a visit to the flagship down the street.
Falai Panetteria (79 Clinton Street at Rivington Street, Lower East Side)