New York has always had places where an on-premise bakery pretty much eclipsed the rest of the restaurant, among them Balthazar, Payard Patisserie and Bistro, Sullivan Street, Angelina, and Clinton Street Baking Company. Baskets of fresh-baked goods may arrive on your table as a meal commences, scrumptious desserts appear at the end, and notably good sandwiches are presented in between — all mostly owing to the bakery. Now another place has come along where baked goods shine.
With much fanfare, Raf’s opened a few days ago in the former Parisi Bakery at 290 Elizabeth Street just north of Houston, a real Italian forno in operation since 1903, and one of the few that still used its coal oven to turn out crusty, sesame-seeded Italian baguettes. Raf’s will eventually be open morning through late evening; customers will be able to buy pastry chef Camari Mick’s baked goods during the day, or sit down for breakfast and lunch service from the kitchen run by chef Mary Attea. Both chefs hail from sibling Musket Room. The new restaurant has just begun serving dinner, and a friend and I went to check it out.
A pair of rooms lined with antiqued mirrors are painted a warm shade of white; the front one with an elbow-shaped bar upon which a vase of dried branches sat. The second room stands next to a white-tiled kitchen that still looks, by contrast, like an ancient bakery. Tongues of flame lick from an oven implanted in the wall, recently converted from coal to wood. The ceiling depicts fluffy clouds in a pale sky interrupted by tulip-shaded chandeliers.
The first thing to hit the table was a basket of warm breads with a saucer of the greenest olive oil lapping against a levee of soft butter. The basket contained a pair of small soft parker house rolls spotted with rock salt, two pudgy fingers of focaccia with crusty tops, and a couple of slices of sourdough bread. While the last item was rather ho-hum and not particularly soft, intended more for sopping sauces than eating by itself, the rolls and focaccia were boffo, so good we immediately wolfed them down. Only the price of the bread basket ($15) gave us pause.
Those slices of sourdough bread came in handy with the six escargots ($23) that seemed to have crawled back into their shells and pulled over themselves a blanket of herbs. The shells were too hot to handle, and we wondered if a device delivered to the table just after the bread basket was intended to extract them. We decided not. Once they had cooled, the snails tasted earthy and grainy.
Next to arrive was a salad ($19) of red tardivo, a type of radicchio, scattered with pistachios and grapefruit segments, draped with fronds of dill and planks of ricotta salata. In retrospect, it was our favorite dish of the evening. It had one of those delicious vinaigrettes that crept up on you. We ate the salad gradually as the pasta arrived — one of only two available. Like thin strips of lasagna wavy along both edges, the malfadine ($24) had a tomatoey ragu dotted with what seemed like sardines — though the menu mentioned lamb. Either way, it was just the thing for a late winter evening. Paradoxically, the flaming oven made the dining room grow hotter and hotter — most people around us were dressed in warm-weather attire — while we doffed jackets and sweaters as the meal progressed.
The menu is clearly a provisional one, so it will undoubtedly change and fill out. It offered 19 dishes in three sections, the majority of them classified as snacks, in addition to the pair of pastas and a final handful of dishes designated From Our Hearth. This made putting a meal together a challenge, because the latter category included a couple of conventional main courses (a whole branzino and a half chicken) while other things seemed like apps.
From that last section came a sfincione ($18), a form of Sicilian pizza rarely seen here that the waiter told us was a legacy recipe from the family that had previously owned the bakery. Served in a cast-iron skilled, it was a dense round of dough topped with bread crumbs, cheese, and salty anchovies: real peasant food that resonated oddly in the context of a restaurant serving mostly elevated fare.
I’d enjoyed a fizzy cocktail ($18) made with Williamsburg’s most famous Italian product – Manhattan Special soda, while my companion was just finishing up a glass of Sicilian white wine, flinty and dry, when the time came for desserts. There were only two at this point and we ordered both. The budino ($10) was a butterscotch (caramelized white chocolate) pudding served in a glass surmounted by a thick layer of whipped cream. The other was a perfect wedge of chocolate torte that could have been improved only by swapping the bottom crust of dense chocolate for graham cracker crumbs or a conventional lard or butter crust.
We left exceedingly stuffed with some sfincione to carry home having spent $220, including tax and tip, glad to be back out in the cool night air.