After an uneven patch, the Union Square Hospitality Group returns to form with Hillary Sterling’s Italian food and a wood-fired hearth.
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It’s not as if I hadn’t seen all the red circles on Resy’s calendar telling me there were no reservations at Ci Siamo each time I checked, and I checked often. Still, when I finally showed up to eat in the restaurant’s hangar-like dining hall, I was surprised to see how many other people were there, too.
Omicron had begun slashing through the city — my guests and I nervously exchanged test results for several days before and after one meal. New Yorkers were said to be hunkering down again, sticking close to home. For most people, that would seem to rule out an expedition to a windswept plaza west of the Moynihan Train Hall.
But I’d forgotten one of the truisms of the restaurant business: If Danny Meyer builds it, they will come.
Whether they will keep coming is another question, one that hangs not just on the progress of the pandemic but also on the ability of Ci Siamo to engender long-term devotion after its novelty fades. Mr. Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group once seemed to have that down to a formula. But it closed one of its restaurants, North End Grill, in 2018. Another, Manhatta, still hasn’t emerged from its Covid-induced closing; its most recent Instagram post, seeking cooks, servers and other new hires to prepare for its reopening, is more than a year old.
The two restaurants had something in common besides ownership: Neither quite escaped the suspicion that it mainly existed to take advantage of a sweet real-estate deal. They resembled those political candidates whose campaigns sink because they can never manage to explain why they’re in the race.
No such fuzziness afflicts Ci Siamo. It is a child of the real-estate business, too, one of several places to eat that are scattered, like bread crumbs for ducks, around the Manhattan West complex that Brookfield Properties built above the train tracks heading for New Jersey. But Ci Siamo’s aims are clear and its rewards are obvious. It’s the best and most confident restaurant we’ve gotten from Mr. Meyer’s company in years.
In business since October, Ci Siamo is Italian all the way, from the name you see on the door (“Ci siamo?” is how waiters in Italy ask if you’re ready to order) to the dessert you’ll almost certainly want just before you leave. The chef, Hillary Sterling, has a lively, inviting style that helped make her last restaurant, Vic’s, on Great Jones Street, stand out in the gridlock of downtown pizza, pasta and burrata spots.
At Ci Siamo she has broadened her menu and intensified her cooking with a new tool — an open, wood-burning hearth that looks wide enough to roast a midsize lion. The fireplace’s smoke and its range of heat, from warm to scorching, changes the way you experience Ms. Sterling’s cooking. At Vic’s, you saw a lot of people flitting from plate to plate, like honeybees. At Ci Siamo, they really dig in.
The skin on a whole trout, browned over the flames, crackled between my teeth like a seaweed chip; wilted mustard greens sweetened with pine nuts and golden raisins spilled from the belly. Nothing was left of the fish when I was through with it except the tail and part of the head, minus the cheeks.
A big fist of swordfish got gentler treatment from the hearth, if not from me. Under a version of the Sicilian lemon and herb sauce salmoriglio smartly extended with chopped artichoke hearts, the fish was creamy and juicy, its softly penetrating smokiness the only evidence of the fire.
Before going out on her own, Ms. Sterling had the luck to cook for Bobby Flay and Missy Robbins, and the judgment to know what to take from them. She has Mr. Flay’s skill at lighting up every taste bud at once; the mussels, lobster, scallops and swordfish in her seafood salad get salt and bitterness from the brine of Castelvetrano olives, acid from fresh lemon, heat from whole Calabrian chiles and a prodigal shake of Aleppo pepper.
She doesn’t crank up the volume as high as he does, but even in relatively restrained amounts her enthusiasm for seasoning in multiple dimensions gives her Italian food a distinctly American crackle. Shell beans of various colors and sizes and flavors, stewed with plenty of sage and rosemary, are punctuated by oil-cured black olives. I could see making a meal of it some chilly, abstemious night.
Her time with Ms. Robbins pays off in Ci Siamo’s pastas, which are supple, skillful and housemade. I am not as wild about the topini — flying saucers filled with wet mashed potatoes — as my servers seemed to be, but the stracci is probably the best rabbit pasta I’ve ever met, and the tomato sauce with tagliatelle made me dizzy, not just because heaps of butter are folded into the tomatoes but also because the butter is made from the milk of water buffalo.
Desserts are in the hands of Claudia Fleming. That is a sentence I’ve wanted to write for a long time. When Ms. Fleming last worked in a New York City restaurant, “Friends” was still running on NBC. This was at Gramercy Tavern, where she showed that minimalist rigor in tarts, cakes and cookies could lead to maximal enjoyment.
Now that she is overseeing the pastry kitchens for the whole Union Square group, including Ci Siamo, it’s clear that her aesthetic is ideal for borderline-sweet Italian desserts. Her dense chocolate budino is buried under an airy, lightly bitter espresso zabaglione studded with shingles of dark chocolate. A long, sharp wedge of torta holds a lemon custard just tart enough to make you welcome the sugary relief of the soft, toasted meringue. And there are sugared bomboloni formed like daisies, with six petals you can pull apart and dip into warm chocolate sauce spiked with amaro in a magically correct ratio.
Over the past two years, a lot of New Yorkers came to a fresh appreciation for the low-key neighborhood restaurants, the mom-and-pops we sometimes take for granted. Places like Ci Siamo play a different role in our lives. I don’t need to eat food cooked in a lion-size hearth, but given the occasional chance to find out what a chef like Ms. Sterling can do with one, I’ll take it.
And sometimes I wanted to hide under the table when I saw Danny Meyer’s young, bright-eyed servers heading straight for me like ambassadors from a nation of chipmunks, but there is something awesome about the presence of mind and professionalism on display at Ci Siamo — awesome and, given the beleaguered state of the restaurant business, hopeful. I left the restaurant thinking: It can be done.