Tradition and Innovation Meet at Giano

September 27, 2013 12:26 pm Last Updated: September 27, 2013 12:26 pm

NEW YORK—Giano, an Italian gem in the East Village, is named after the old Roman god Janus, the deity of beginnings and doorways. In mythology, Janus, has two faces looking in opposite directions, one to the past, and the other to the future. 

The decor at Giano takes inspiration from this in an unusual way. The front of the restaurant is modern, well-lit, with a predominantly white palette, with a curved sit-down bar made of Sicilian salt and resin. The French doors open up right onto Seventh Street when the weather is fine, giving the space even more of a sunlit, open feel.

Toward the back, red ropes give way to a rustic and romantic ambiance: walnut tables, dim lighting, and brick walls with small recesses for votive candles. And finally, a seasonal garden, open from April to October, adds sylvan charm. Large oak trees extend their canopies over the garden, and planters and potted plants add a lovely touch of green and color. 

Whichever section you sit in, the ambiance is lovely, and the noise level is low, making it perfect for dates or groups of friends who want to chat.

Not least is the hospitality of the two friends from Milan who run Giano, Paolo Rossi and Matteo Niccoli. Rossi, who runs the front of the house, is so convivial and funny, he makes you feel right at home. He also wears a second hat as wine director and happily guides wine choices. Niccoli helms the kitchen.

The menu has both traditional and modern touches, again keeping with the theme of the restaurant, and it’s purposefully small and focused, to keep quality high. 

“Seasonal ingredients, fresh ingredients for Italian cuisine, are the secret to have an amazing dish,” Niccoli said.

By his estimation, there are about 5,000 Italian restaurants in the city, and he seeks to offer a few items that are unique to Giano.

One is the Bigoli al Ragu d’Agnello e Noci Tostate ($16.95), from the Veneto region in the northwest of Italy, which makes use of a pasta that looks like thick spaghetti. The origin of the pasta goes back to medieval times. Back then, bigoli was made with just flour and water. Eggs were considered valuable, and they were saved for bartering.

Niccoli’s version does use eggs, as do all his pastas, which makes the pasta richer, and uses a delicate slow cooked lamb ragout, along with toasted walnut powder, rather than the traditional offal.

Another very unique dish is the Tonnarelli con Colatura d’Alici ($13.95), homemade square spaghetti with “colatura” (anchovy sauce), panko, and parsley. It’s utterly simple in its preparation. Niccoli presses anchovies and puts them through a filter, using just the juice of the anchovies. It’s not for everyone, as Niccoli will tell you. It does take a lot of anchovies, and the taste is unique—just like the sea. The twist here is the addition of panko, which adds texture and also absorbs the colatura.

Appetizers were excellent including the Polpette al Pomodoro Gratinate ($12.95), extremely tender and flavorful meatballs in a tomato sauce. Niccoli says he’s had many, many types of meatballs in his life, and he uses a special process to make sure his are soft. “Even if you cook them for hours, they’ll never get dry.”

The tuna and ricotta croquettes, the Crocchette di Ricotta e Tonno ($12.95), were also an exercise in showing how simple is sometimes best. It’s a nice play on contrasts as well, between the texture of the creamy tuna and ricotta filling and the crispy panko coating, and between the savory flavor of the croquettes and the sweetness of the balsamic reduction. 

The flavors again played together wonderfully in the Filetto al Balsamico con Pancetta e Cipolle ($22.95), the balsamic glazed filet mignon, which came as tender and flavorful as they come, served alongside a basil mashed potato, crispy pancetta, and braised onion. I found the pancetta too salty for the mix, but that’s about the only quibble I can think of.

One of my dinner companions raved about the cod fillet entree, the Baccala’ alla Livornese con Polenta ($22.95)—the buttery-soft cod was paired with bolder ingredients—black olives, capers, tomatoes—that added some zip.

The tiramisu ($7.95) is terrific. It takes into account you may have been indulging in pastas and all manner of delicious carbs just beforehand, but light as it is, it is worth exerting some discipline and saving a little room for. 

Coffee dessert lovers should hold out for the cappuccino ($7.95) served in a coffee cup. This dessert consists of homemade coffee gelato, wafer cookies, ricotta, and topped with a cinnamon/coffee foam.

Take advantage of the summer weather and go while the doors are still wide open to the street and the garden is open out back. 

The prix-fixe dinner runs from Tuesday through Thursday, and Sunday, from 5:30 p.m.–7 p.m. It includes an appetizer and main course for $22.95.

126 East Seventh St. (between First Avenue & Avenue A)

Tuesday–Thursday, and Sunday: 5:30 p.m.–11 p.m. 
Friday and Saturday: 5:30 p.m.–midnight