Asellina – Midtown East, NYC

Delicious branzino at Asellina!

Review By: Ricki Kahn –

Birthdays are fantastic for many reasons: friends and family celebrate how great you already know you are, cake in the office, cake out of the office, and the feeling that world actually does revolve around you.

Most people tend to have a birthday dinner. But if you’re part of my family, birthdays are like Polish weddings. Not one birthday dinner, but multiple birthday meals – including dinners, brunches, and lunches – spanning over a two-week period.

Over the top? Maybe. Worth the calories? Absolutely.

While I’m opting out of posting about my birthday lunch at Parm in NoLita, my first birthday dinner at Sinigual in Midtown, and my first birthday brunch at Maialino in Grammery, I just cannot resist talking about my incredible second birthday dinner at Asellina in the Gansevoort Park Hotel.

Asellina attracts a young and trendy crowd. Everyone dresses to be seen and the ambiance screams cool. Earth-toned seating and accessories complemented by mood lighting definitely make this rustic Italian restaurant date-night worthy. Not even having mentioned the food yet, these factors alone make it the perfect pick for my sister, Alex, and her boyfriend, David. And me.

The nice thing about dining with a few other people that have similar tastes as you is the sharing factor – the best way to dine if you ask me.

That being said, it was only natural to start with a few “appies” – or appetizers as boring people would say. So, we decided on olives stuffed with veal, roasted butternut squash soup, and sausage-pesto flatbread.

While stuffed olives with veal might sound a bit strange (how does one even fit veal into a tiny olive), it was actually the yummiest starter ever. For David, it was more of an amuse-bouche as he popped the whole olive in his mouth, but I made sure to be like one of those obnoxious girls in elementary school that slowly savor each bite in order to be the last one to finish the birthday brownie, or in my case, the olive. The combination from the crunch of the semolina-crusted olive with the creamy veal stuffing was incredible. The contrasting textures were such a pleasant surprise and the light crust was just enough to give some bite without feeling like I was eating a fried, greasy mess.

As we nibbled on the olives, the roasted butternut squash soup arrived. It was the perfect shade of golden-orange that you envision when you think of butternut squash. While this may not have been the best pre-birthday party dish with its sometimes-gaseous aftermath, I just could not resist, as it’s my favorite soup of the season. It was creamy, but still thin enough to keep me hungry for the rest of my meal.  And the best part of the soup was the lump crabmeat piled high in the middle of the bowl. The crab was flaky and cool in temperature, which juxtaposed perfectly with the heat of the soup.

Then came the house sausage and pesto flatbread and a side order of truffle fries.  The flatbread was setup like a pizza, only better. The oven-dried tomatoes, basil pesto and fiore sardo (cheese) combined for that pizza feel, yet the small amount of cheese allowed the sausage to be the star of this dish – which I was in favor of. The grouping of ingredients allowed for the perfect balance of salty and sweet. I really love sausage, but in comparison to the uniqueness of the olives and my obsession with butternut squash, I’d probably skip over this flatbread for my next visit. As for the truffle fries, well they’re truffle fries – enough said.

Feeling more than satisfied with the appies, we eagerly awaited the rest of our meal: a pasta dish and branzino. Save your breath – gluttons for punishment – yes, I know.

The pasta dish was paccheri (a large tube shape noodle) with shrimp, calamari, clams, Tuscan kale, and bottarga (cured fish roe). I really liked this dish because it was pretty evenly balanced with the seafood and the paccheri, allowing us to get our pasta fix without feeling so heavy. I particularly liked the shape of the pasta because it soaked up the sauce really well.

The seafood pasta paired well with the roasted branzino, which was plated with fregola (a grain similar to couscous), shellfish ragu, and colonnata lardo (salami). And from what I remember, it was delicious. Being that both dishes had a similar flavor profile, I’d suggest only picking one for next time. It’s almost as if the two dishes were continuations of each other – and I prefer having more of contrasting flavors between dishes. All in all the entrée portion of the meal was a success.

But the best part of a birthday meal is the birthday cake – or in this case the birthday tiramisu. And a shot of limocello. I love tiramisu, but then again what’s not to love about cheese, chocolate and espresso? And while I’m not the biggest limocello fan, it was a nice surprise that the restaurant treated us to. And in case I was starting to feel a food coma come on – I could definitely count on the limocello for that wake-up sweet and sour zing.