A friend who lives in Astoria has been operatically singing the praises of Ornella Trattoria for almost a year. Particular praise was paid to the chestnut flour pasta. Yesterday I broke down and paid Giuseppe Viterale's restaurant a visit. It wasn't pasta that spurred me to go to Ornella though. It was reports buzzing around the New York City food blogosphere about a certain infamous Sardinian cheese, casu marzu. I'd first of heard of it while eating live octopus with Anthony Bourdain. "Oh this is nothing," he said chopsticking a wriggling tentacle into his mouth. "My wife's family is from Sardinia, they eat that maggot cheese. It's actually quite delicious.
Before the bizarre eating began Giuseppe suggested a few specialties of the house. First up, polpette di anatra ($12), duck meatballs. At the center of each orb was a blend of ricotta, fontina, and mozzarella cheeses. They sat in an orange brandy sauce punctuated with plump raisins. Definitely not your nonna's meatballs-unless she happened to hail from Northeast Italy-yet still delicious. Next came an order of pasta di castagna ($18), the aforementioned chestnut pasta. Sauced with a pistachio pesto and truffle oil it was good, if a tad heavy for my tastes. "I like to work with different flours, buckwheat,chickpea. My father had a flour mill in Italy," Giuseppe said.
One of the most exquisite dishes he serves is the pizzoccheri all fontinia, featuring long flat noodles made from buckwheat flour. The hearty pasta ribbons are tossed with tender braised cabbage, golden potatoes, fontina cheese, and a touch of garlic and olive oil. The dish is simultaneously light, hearty, decadent, and a playscape of textures and flavors atypical of Italian American standards.