Le Zie

A charming neighborhood trattoria, Le Zie slowly reveals itself to be more than just that. From the outside the restaurant appears to be a small unassuming hole in the wall, but from inside, just beyond the small front room, there is the side bar, back room with another bar, and a private dining room upstairs. Our group of five was led to the back room overlooking what appeared to be a garden courtyard and fountain. The garden theme followed through to the bar, which had an urn full of fresh blooming cherry blossom branches. The darkness of the room was somewhat dispelled by romantic candlelight that took a little getting used to. The high wood-beamed ceilings, clay-tiled floors, and thickly painted brick walls create a true Italianate aura, which contrast nicely against the modern art and black and white photography hung on the walls of the restaurant.

Our tables were two bistro tables pushed together for the five of us—a bit crammed but somewhat manageable. We were offered bottled water, but asked for tap water, which was served from a vintage soda bottle with a lightning stopper. The waitress then rattled off a very long list of specials that she had almost thoroughly memorized except for the last two, for which she had to consult her note pad. After talking for a bit to reacquaint ourselves with each other’s goings about and at the same time turning away the waitress a few times, we were ready to order by the third approach of the waitress. Along with ordering our appetizers and entrees we had asked to see the wine menu, from which I ordered a bottle of Umani Ronchi Sangiovese Medoro. The wine was light, fruity, not too tannic, and enjoyed by even the one of us who does not usually like red wine.

We were provided with two types of fresh bread, soft focaccia-like bread and traditional crusty bread, along with a plate of olives and roasted garlic in oil, of which we quickly asked for a second plate. We ordered one of the many special appetizers: the fava bean and radish salad with pecorino chunks and lemon vinaigrette and, from the regular menu, the baked goat cheese with tomato sauce and garlic bread. The salad was clean, crunchy, and evocative of spring. The baked cheese in tomato sauce was really a creamy tomato soup in a creme brulee dish that was good enough for soaking the bread. All that was missing from the presentation was a chiffanade of basil, which would have made for a nice finishing taste.

Once I heard that branzino was a special of the day, I could not help myself from ordering it. As I have come to read elsewhere about this restaurant, it seems that branzino is the special everyday. The salt-encrusted fish was deboned tableside and drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, and served with sauteed escarole. It was beautifully done, subtle in flavor, and very delicate. But I was a bit shocked to discover that the fish was billed at $25. Other dishes that were ordered included, linguine, pici, tortelli, and what the restaurant claims is the most famous spaghetti and meatballs. The linguine featured tender manila clams in a clear clam sauce. The spinach and ricotta filling of the tortelli was a bit salty but otherwise well dressed in a sage and brown butter sauce. The pici was a very unique and freshly made hand-rolled ricotta pasta, gnocchi-like in texture but worm-like in shape, tossed with string beans, asparagus, and fava beans in an herb sauce. The spaghetti did not live up to its hype: the meatballs were too beefy and did not taste Italian at all, but the fresh and homey sauce just about redeemed the dish.

After anesthetically filling ourselves to the brim, we decided to share two desserts. I ordered the tiramisu with the logic that a good Italian restaurant should have good tiramisu, but many do not. So I feel it is always a good idea to test the tiramisu, but opting for this Italian mainstay dessert turned out to be an expected let down. It lacked the flavor, texture, and creaminess of a good tiramisu. Nothing can beat a homemade tiramisu. On the other hand, the second dessert, the ricotta cheesecake with a creme brulee top, which was a bit burned, was well received among the group.

Other than a few caveats with the food, the restaurant could improve upon the cramped tables and the coat racks stored in the hallway, which should be devoted to a room, but I can understand that since it is a seasonal aspect, a coatroom is not practical for a small restaurant. All in all, the restaurant does not fail to deliver reasonably traditional Italian food with a Venetian twist as it claims is its focus.

Le Zie
172 7th Ave, between 20th and 21st Streets
New York, NY 10011
212-206-8686
Open daily from 12:00 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.
Appetizers range in price from $6 to $14 and entrees from $11 to $18.