Entries in Iacopo Falai (2)



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)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: *½
Overall: **


Falai Panetteria

Note: Falai Panetteria closed in December 2011. It rebooted briefly and then closed once again. It is now Marm Cafe.


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)

Food: ★
Service: ★
Ambiance: ★
Overall: ★