Slices of Napoli—Tiella, Upper East Side’s Newest Gem

The Upper East Side’s recently opened Tiella is named for the mini cast iron skillets in which their signature creations–dolled up, elegant pizzettes–are served. Cara and I are rebels, so when we visited Tiella for a long, meandering dinner, we tasted just about everything but the restaurant’s namesake. However delicious the tielle may be, the rest of the menu items tantalize, stand out, and can stand alone; in a skillet or no, Tiella will have no problem filling its down-under-the-Queensboro Bridge space nightly.

If when you dine at Italian restaurants, you unthinkingly dunk your bread in a ramekin of olive oil: pay attention! We’re experiencing an olive oil revolution, and at detail-oriented spots like this one, the olive oil served with bread is often something special. Tiella serves Novello oil from Tuscany in a little silver olive with a long stem for pouring. The green oil’s taste is fresh and intense, and coupled with the chef’s baked-daily soft breads, it makes for a dramatic opening.

A tiny slice of the block, the long, slender railroad space gives the illusion of darkening toward the back. When our server Armando emerges from the kitchen he seems to do so from a mysterious dusk. He usually materializes with an armload of delights and a broad smile. That Tuesday night as guests of the restaurant we requested a tasting of a few of Tiella’s offerings, and so began the procession.

Two neat tangles of crisp arugula salad started us off, accompanied by luscious figs and Taleggio so piquant that at first taste I mistook it for goat cheese. (Photo, at top). Armando next brought us Sformatino, a spinach flan in gorgonzola sauce. If flan officially retires as dessert and pursues full-time employment as this appetizer, I will support it wholly. The dense, eggy spinach is balanced with a sweetness in the sauce, and Cara and I schemed to swipe the recipe until the next dish arrived.

All of Tiella’s dishes are as easy on the eyes as they are pleasing to the palate; we next sampled pretty cauliflower ravioli in saffron butter sauce. Visually, the round pastas resemble eggs soused in yolky yellow, which made some part of me anticipate the taste of a mouthful of fried eggs. The fresh, mealy vegetable insides, soft pasta shell, and utterly saffron-saturated butter sauce begged to differ. High quality saffron is sadly rare, and when used liberally like this the flavor reminds me faintly of honey and seafood–subtleties that are fantastically showcased in this dish.

Tiella’s pastas are all homemade, and Chef Peppe Castellano keeps seven kinds of flour on hand for his various fine-tuned recipes. We tried the Scialatielli; fat spaghetti tossed with eggplant, tomato, and smoked mozzarella served within a bowl of baked parmesan cheese. The textures here are so entertaining. (Also, I’m still searching for a place to buy parmesan bowls for my own kitchen; eating your cheese-dishes is much preferable to washing regular ones, I think.)

Our last savory option was a mini fillet of orate sheathed on one side with crispy bacon and on the other, a layer of potatoes sliced so thin I thought it looked liked melted cheese. The flaky fish tastes unfishy and just like the ocean, and it’s glazed delicately with lemon-thyme.

The dining room’s bustle eventually slowed to a hum as we sat in the window, enjoying the ambience and contemplating dessert. Armando, who has worked closely with the chef since before Tiella’s opening, shared some facts from the kitchen: the custom made, wood burning Tiella oven is the smallest in the city and reaches 900 degrees; 80 percent of the ingredients used here are imported from Italy. Somehow we moved on to an idle comparison of lifestyles in New York, other American cities, and Salerno, Italy, from where Armando hails (New Yorkers work too much, but we eat just the right amount). The dimly lit, cozy space has transporting quality of space and time; it’s the kind of place that makes you feel incognito while hours pass by unchecked.

Soon enough, a trio of desserts appeared on our table with two frozen glasses of Limoncello. Naturally, the drink pairs quite well with the classic, snowball shaped Delitzia Limone, a sponge and cream cake spiked with the spirit. Sharing the spotlight was a Pistachio Caprese, a coupling of flourless chocolate cake (it contains almond flour, but that doesn’t count) and an ultra-concentrated pistachio gelato. For me, the understated, first-place dessert of the triumvirate was the cheesecake of Roman sheep Ricotta: a not-so-sweet, relatively fluffy iteration of the sin.

Visit Tiella when you’re in the mood for a surreptitious-feeling rendezvous in an elegant setting. You’ll want to make a reservation, but as busy as Tiella can be, it doesn’t feel hectic. I regret my limited tummy capacity with a menu this stellar; there is so much here to try. Regulars (and there are already many) extol the tiella and many other items, including Branzino, a Mediterranean sea bass with eggplant and balsamic; Agnello, an herbed rack of lamb; and a lobster risotto laced with grapefruit.

1109 First Avenue, between 60th and 61st Streets