Do you insist on fresh pasta when choosing an Italian restaurant? William Wright, who broke out last year as executive chef at Helen Greek Food & Wine and is now repeating the feat at sister restaurant Arthur Ave, says fuhgeddaboudit. When the new restaurant opens at 1111 Studewood St. in the Heights this Friday, lasagna, cavatelli and tagliatelle will be made in-house, but the majority of the pastas he serves will be imported. "I'm a huge fan of dried pastas," he says. "Once you go south, it's mostly dried pasta."
And southern Italy is what's represented on his new menu, the product of another collaboration from Helen co-owners, director of operations and partner Sharif Al-Amin and managing partner Tim Faiola. Arthur Ave, after all, is the the iconic street in the Bronx's Little Italy that's historically been populated mostly by Calabrese and Pugliese immigrants. Wright is sticking to the dry stuff, not only for the sake of authenticity, but because he saw its advantages while cooking in Italy himself.
The fusilli, for example, is crafted from "extremely high quality grain from the area" by a small family which only makes five shapes, extruded through bronze dies. Wright says the rough grains are all the better to be coated with the Alfredo sauce that he makes by infusing cream with the rinds of the giant Parmesan wheels the restaurant purchases for use on just about everything. Wright says his goal was to create a lighter take on the heavy dish, and succeeds with the addition of parsley and a nest of lemon zest on top.
Other dishes include classics such as long-stewed Sunday Gravy, chicken or eggplant Parmigiano and Italian sausage and peppers. There's also porchetta, beef braciole and pasta e fagioli (actually spelled "fazool" on the menu). At first glance, the bill of fare might sound highly traditional, but Wright's cheffed up takes on Italian-American classics aren't so predictable.
The Caprese, for example, centers around a blob of mozzarella that's hand-pulled to order. Wright says that with experience, this now takes him only about three minutes. Its assets are obvious: The cheese arrives still warm (it's made from boiling milk, after all), a floppy, squeaky companion to peeled heirloom tomatoes marinated in basil oil and topped with aged balsamic and micro arugula.
The bar program is a collaboration between beverage director Lainey Collum, sommelier Evan Turner and Shepard Ross, best known as the restaurateur behind Pax Americana. Drinks are resolutely Italian-American, with an emphasis on vermouth and amari that will soon be made in-house. But it's not all serious. White Russian soft serve is on the menu, too.
Wright is especially proud of his cannoli, which are made from house pasta and fried to order. The conical shape, another vestige of his time in Italy, means it's easiest to pick up and eat like an ice cream cone. The ultra-light ricotta filling comes from Calabro Cheese, a company just outside New Haven, Conn., not so coincidentally the home of white clam pies, a regional pizza also on the Arthur Ave menu.
But the pasta isn't the only uncommon element in Wright's cannoli. Along with pistachios and chocolate shavings, his is dotted with orange zest, which he found to be common in the dessert's native Sicily, but mostly forgotten in the states. Apparently, Arthur Ave has something on even the classic restaurants on one of New York's most storied streets.