al di la review- no longer a virgin (long)
Last night I brought my boyfriend out for his birthday dinner to Al Di La. We decided that we'd need a special occasion to venture into the "other" borough, so I canceled my reservation at Apizz (still on my to go list, but since I live a few blocks away, I can always pop in) to explore the place i'd been hearing so much about- Al Di La.
I'll say this much for Chowhound-- sometimes I try to avoid reading too many reviews of a spot before going to a restaurant as I feel hearing negative comments about this or that can taint my experience. I'm just as critical as the next Chower, but if one person had stale bread or bad service once, and people go back and forth about whether it's gone up or downhill, it ends up adding to my anxiety about trying a place (eg, Should I bother? Is it worth the money? Will it be a birthday disaster? etc.). That said, Al Di La seems to be a contentious topic on this board as it has its diehard lovers and its defectors as well. I read a few too many of these right before we left, and I was nervous that I was about to spend way too much and wait way too long for over-hyped food and ruin a bday dinner.
But as soon as we got there, my fears were totally put to ease. We got there on the early side-- 6:30 or so-- and there were several tables open, so we snagged a single table and didn't have to eat communal style (thankfully, as for a romantic bday that would've been no fun). Wondering if the economy is affecting this legendary wait at Al Di La? By the time we left at 8:30, there was still no wait.
But onto the food. Greeted by aromas and people surrounding us were just getting their food. There's nothing better than seeing people around you digging into the most scrumptious looking
swiss-chard raviolis or polenta.
To start, we ordered 2 glasses of the house wine and the kale salad. Here's where I'd agree with some of those previous reviewers. While I enjoyed the mix of the ingredients-- kale, anchovy, croutons, parmesan, dressed w/ lemon and olive oil-- it was REALLY salty! Still edible and tasty, with a nice matching of lemony acid with the slightly bitter kale, but bordered on losing its yumminess because of some zealous oversalter in the kitchen. The anchovies themselves probably already had enough salt, they didn't need to add much more. The kale was also raw, which I'm not that used too-- so a bit tough to eat, but overall, still a nice change of pace from your regular Caesar salad.
Next, we had a special- the homemade gnocchi with pork shoulder ragu. This was heavenly. the gnocchi were fresh and reminded me of my time living in Rome, where we used to order gnocchi on thursdays as those were usually the days the restaurants made them fresh. Tender and soft, they just fell apart in your mouth, and the tomato-based pork shoulder was a perfect, rich compliment. Gnocchi to me is sometimes too starchy, but they achieved a nice balance of sauce to pasta ratio here. And the way the gnocchi dissolved in your mouth made it not chewy or starchy at all. It was heavenly.
Entrees- he ordered the braised rabbit with black olives over polenta, and I ordered the roasted fish. I'm not a rabbity person, but I took a few bites of his-- delicious and moist, perfectly braised in its juices, a bit heavy for my taste, but nicely balanced with the milder polenta. My fish was the roasted whole orata with olives, tomatoes, and fingerling potatoes. Good, nicely seasoned, moist. Nothing extraordinary, just a well-done mediterranean style fish. It was fresh and the fish flaked off the bone easily, but having to debone the fish myself and picking out the little strays made it a bit of a task.
All the portions sizes were healthy, not heaping, but also not tiny, as I'd feared based on many reviews. Yes, the pasta was small for the price ($15), but it was heavy and I probably couldn't have eaten much more had it been larger. Plus, it wasn't much different than portions in Italy-- where a pasta is meant to be a first course, then the entree your second-- just as it's listed primo and secondo on the menu.
Lastly, the desserts. To me, these were wildly disparate. He ordered the trio of homemade sorbets-- apricot, passionfruit, and pineapple, and an espresso. I was trying to be caloric-ly conservative, so i opted to share his-- and quickly regretted it. These were so sickeningly sweet that I couldn't bear to eat more than 1 bite of each flavor. The pineapple was passable, with fresh fruit chunks in it-- but the apricot was for some reason a huge turnoff (maybe i just prefer fresh apricots?), and the passionfruit was creamy. All of them came slightly half-melted into a sugar syrup. Not my favorite, though he liked them enough to eat half (the other half was already melted).
Disappointed, I was driven to get my own dessert. To hell with calories. I chose the warm pear cake with dark chocolate pieces and side of homemade whipped cream. This was the best move I made all night. The cake was dusted with a light coating of confectioners' sugar and perfectly moist with generous chunks of delicately sweet pear, and a layer of bittersweet chocolate balanced the cake from being too sweet. I'm not a fan of whipped cream, but I couldn't stop eating this-- it was so light and airy and not too sweet-- like eating a cloud. The ends of the cake were baked and crunchy and even a tiny bit salty-- a perfect counteract to the rest of the cake's sweet, fruity, warm, luscious, chocolately goodness. I can never decide between fruit desserts or chocolate, and now I think I've finally found my perfect dessert.
So that's that. Was Al Di La a perfect experience? Accounting for the overly salted salad and the sickeningly sweet sorbets, no. Was it worth it? Absolutely. The majority of what we ordered was outstanding, and the place deserves the hype it's gotten. I will be back.
Try the risotto nero and the malfatti. These are certainly some of their signature dishes. Maybe also get a bit more adventurous with the wine.
Hang in there with the place. If you catch what they do best you will love it. Having said that, they can be off on quite a few dishes too. Just order selectively and know what they can and cannot do.