NYC is awash with Italian restaurants. With so many, could there possibly be room for yet another? Well, when that restaurant has the cooking and personality that Chef/owner Joe Isidori’s Arthur on Smith has, the answer is an unequivocal yes!
Chef Joseph Arthur Isidori walks a fine and difficult line at Arthur on Smith and does so without falling off. He balances a respect for the traditional Italian-American cooking of his grandmother with enough creative spark to make things interesting and exciting. Arthur on Smith is Torrisi without the attitude.
The restaurant fills a small store front space on the burgeoning Carroll Gardens block of Smith Street with a warm, well crafted rustic charm. Isidori, demonstrated that his talents are not limited to the kitchen as he both designed and built the interior of the restaurant himself. The restaurant is named after Isidori’s late father, Arthur Joseph Isidori, also a chef. His father cooked the kind of food that Isidori is cooking in Carroll Gardens, a long time Italian neighborhood that has gentrified over the last twenty to thirty years, but still retains much of its old-time Italian-American character with such neighborhood favorites as Ferdinando’s Foccaceria, Esposito’s Pork Store, Court Pastry, Caputo’s Bakery and more. It’s a neighborhood that abuts the neighborhood I grew up in and one I spent a lot of time in while growing up.
Chef Isidori was born and raised in an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, the third of three generations of cooks. His grandmother was the first, followed by his father and then Joe. His grandmother and father both cooked Italian-American food in their restaurants, but until this restaurant, Isidori, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, kept his Italian-American cooking limited to his family, professionally cooking high-end, fine dining cuisine in a number of venues including a stint as Donald Trump’s personal chef and the Executive Chef of the Trump Hotels’ dining projects. In addition to Arthur on Smith, Isidori continues his interest in fine dining in the Hamptons with his restaurant South Fork.
The tables are mix and match that actually match surprisingly well given their disparate origens. The decor is not big budget, but it has been put together with an eye for detail. Arriving at the table to find my brother and my nephew there waiting for us, my sister, my son and I also found some house made pickles waiting as well. The pickles were an indication that this was not going to be just another straight forward Italian restaurant.
Sliced Italian bread that tasted as if it came from the wonderful neighborhood stalwart, Caputo’s Bakery, was delicious. The butter came with some honey drizzled over it. The combination, not classic Italian either, was another indication of the tightrope that Isidori would be walking throughout the meal. This was perhaps, the one area of the meal, where I would have preferred the more straightforward approach. The bread could not have been improved, but butter alone would have been the ideal choice for me, as it always was in my Italian-American household. Nevertheless, these were still welcome immediate bites for some hungry diners.
The menu is divided into four sections: small plates, pastas, large plates and vegetables. We each chose a couple of items to share amongst us. Dishes came out as they were made. Throughout the meal, the flavors were bold and deep, but well balanced. Isidori’s Italian cooking tasted as if they were made from the heart.
His hand made ricotta gnocchi with Hudson Valley Pork ragout used a different pasta than what would have been used in my family, but his grandmother’s recipe for the gnocchi was too good to quibble with. This was the traditionalists’ Italian-American comfort food at its finest.
Most of the pastas on the menu are freshly made in house. The spelt papardelle was toothsome and tasty with lamb sausage, black pepper and pecorino there to boost the flavor into overdrive. This was true to the spirit of Italian cooking, but not a typical part of my family’s tradition. Interestingly enough, though, I have taken within the past year to making a pasta dish somewhat similar to this. For mine, I use a lamb chorizo sausage from Washington County’s Elihu Farm and mix it with garlic, spinach and pan-roasted shiitake or oyster mushrooms and serve it with rigatoni or most recently trofie. It makes for a very tasty pasta dish. So does Chef Isidori’s.
Spaghetti carbonara is certainly traditional and while Chef Isidori’s has some personal touches, it hits all the right notes cleanly and deliciously. This is a marvelous version. I mentioned earlier that most of the pastas used at Arthur on Smith are house made. The spaghettis are not. These come from Faella in the pasta making capital of the world – Gragnano, Italy. Chef Isidori gets these from the importer/internet retailer Gustiamo.com. It’s good stuff. The dish was as good a carbonara as I’ve tasted.
The pasta dish that really caught my eye on the menu was the paccheri with sea urchin and I wasn’t disappointed. This was a very flavorful dish, that didn’t pack the heat that I expected, but that was ok, because too much heat would have overshadowed the wonderful dollop of ricci di marespooned on top.
All the pastas were superb, but if I absolutely had to pick a favorite and everyone at the table agreed, it was the crazy delicious buccatini with perfect squid and bacon in a tomato sauce. This was sweet, smoky and complex and buccatini just has amazing texture, especially when cooked as perfectly as this was. This was a dish that had one foot in the traditionalists’ camp and the other in the creative camp. It wasn’t a revolutionary jump, but it was a perfect example of the tightrope that Isidori is walking here. Plain and simple, it satisfied deeply in every respect.
The small plates weren’t all that small. The octopus was influenced more by Spain than by Italy, but there is so much overlap between the countries’ culinary cultures, especially in the South of Italy, which is the basis for most of Isidori’s cooking here, that the dish flows effortlessly with the rest of the meal. Isidori’s octopus is tender and flavorful with just enough char to add complexity without overburdening the rest of the flavors on the plate. Octopus has become much more popular in NYC in the last couple of years and Isidori’s is as good as any that I have had.
The low level lighting typical of most contemporary dining spots in NYC these days made the mussels difficult to photograph, but they were most certainly easy to eat. These had great flavor with just enough nuance to make them interesting as well as delicious.
My son and myself were the only ones at our table that were looking forward to the sardines, but by the time we were done eating them, everyone marveled at how good they were. My sister, a very picky eater, and my brother didn’t want to even taste them initially. Their memories of sardines are from very fishy canned products from childhood. The memories weren’t good, but I prevailed upon them to taste these wonderfully crisp swimmers and now they have very positive new memories. These whole fish had succulent flesh and a crackling crisp coating. The green elements of the salsa verde and the tomato aioli added depth and more textural and temperature contrasts to the fish. These are the the kind of sardines that Ferran Adria might have been referring to, when he said, “A very good sardine is always preferable to a not very good lobster.”
Isidori also shows a deft hand with vegetables. While the majority of the menu incorporates some form of animal or fish protein into the dishes, he has a section on vegetables, that while not vegan as they all included some dairy or egg product, could easily satisfy most vegetarians as well as omnivores. The Treviso salad was a model of refreshment, especially on a hot summer night. Each bite was different, but just as delicious as any other bite, The slightly bitter treviso was balanced by the tartness of lemon and the sweetness of the fennel, while the parm added depth and the dill some haunting notes.
Heirloom carrots are all the rage thanks to the influence of Rene Redzepi and other followers of the New Naturalism and with the availability of these wonderful Satur Farms baby carrots, Chef Isidori couldn’t resist adding his two cents despite the fact that this dish bore little resemblance to the rest of the Italianate menu. Truth is, though, that with a dish this good, that really didn’t matter. The ingredients and the preparation may not have been typically Italian or Italian-American, but the idea of letting good ingredients sing is and this dish did just that. There is a reason that carrots like this have become a new “it” vegetable – they’re very, very good.
A tomato salad is more commonly Italian, but Chef Isidori did not offer a classic Caprese. Instead of a fresh mozzarella or buratta, he substituted fresh sheep’s milk ricotta. The tomatoes themselves were in midseason form and their tang married well with the creamy cheese and the sweet vinegar. If anyone needed further proof that summer had arrived, they just needed to eat this salad.
The wine program at Arthur on Smith is good with a number of nice choices both by the glass and by the bottle. Through the course of our meal, we had two different Lambruscos. Low in alcohol with a good acid backbone, these bubbly red wines have recently been revitalized cutting down on the syrupy sweetness that they had come to be characterized by. These two, the first, a dark red wine, the Robanera from Umberto Cavicchioli & Figli, an inexpensive dry wine with good fruit and the second, a lighter colored and even dryer red from the same producer, the 2011 Vigna del Cristo, were both superb accompaniments to Isidori’s full flavored cooking.
The large plates were quite generous and reasonably priced. Isidori’s soft shell crabs were lightly sauteed and plated in a more creative approach than classic Italian. Accompanying clams were tasty and the spring peas underneath the crabs were tasty too. This was a nice dish to satisfy my primal urge for these beauties.
I love a good pork chop. My benchmark for pork chops comes from a restaurant that is located not too far from Smith Street – Two Toms. I haven’t been there in years, but their thick cut pork chop, well caramelized on the outside and sweet and juicy on the inside is one of my iconic food memories from my childhood and the pork chop by which all others are compared. Isidori’s chops taken from Tamworth crossed pigs from Clawhammer Farm in upstate NY are sensational. Juicy and packed with plenty of porcine flavor and paired with pickled peppers, roasted potatoes, pork jus and rosemary, this pork chop was as delicious as any that I have ever had. It is an Italian-American traditionalist’s dream and the reason why there are traditionalists.
Deliciousness did not stop with the savories. I asked if there were any cannoli on the menu. Chef Isidori said no, acknowledging the fact that the neighborhood still has some of the best in the City at the nearby Court Pastry. Why try to compete with them? Instead, he did his own thing. The buttermilk panna cotta was nicely paired with seasonal strawberries and lime for a refreshing treat.
The combination of dense pistachio flavor and Amareni cherries was simply delicious and complex and quite satisfying.
The desserts were quite tasty. For some reason – I don’t know why – I wasn’t expecting them to be anywhere as good as they were, but I was very glad that we didn’t forgo them. I would not typically have ordered the budino as I’m wary of the sweetness of butterscotch, but Isidori’s was brilliant with the vanilla ice cream and especially the duck fat popcorn tempering the sweetness and supplying a surprising amount of depth and savoriness to the dessert.
We tackled a lot of food. Nothing was less than excellent. Our service was friendly and competent. Arthur on Smith doesn’t take reservations, but we got there early and found no difficulty securing a table on a Friday night at 6:30, but as the evening progressed, so did the demand for tables. This is a restaurant serving food from the heart and it shows. Chef Isidori isn’t intending this to be a destination restaurant. He considers it “a neighborhood joint.” It fits that roll exceptionally well. I certainly wish I had it in my neighborhood. Even though it isn’t, my family and I enjoyed it so much, that it will continue to be a destination for us, especially given its proximity to our old neighborhood and all its wonderful food memories captured so well and expanded upon by this superb restaurant.