Bringing Italy Home to the Village

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:05

    West Village resident Massimo Galeano injects true Italian spirit into his restaurant Gradisca

    If you don't feel like cooking this Christmas Eve, there's a new way to celebrate old world Italian-style. Gradisca (126 West 13th Street) is going back to its roots with a seven-course fish dinner this December 24, a culinary feat that new chef John Creger and owner Massimo Galeano are eager to share with West Village residents as a little piece of the mother country.

    In Italy, Christmas Eve dinner is traditionally a meatless meal, so Creger wanted to serve up fish dishes, with a twist.

    "Exploring meatless dishes seemed appropriate for our never-ending aim to bring to New Yorkers a little piece of Italy," said Galeano.

    Gradisca's mission has always been to deliver heartfelt Italian cooking inspired by Galeano's Italian mother, who splits her time between Massimo's apartment above the restaurant and Italy. She can usually be found patrolling the restaurant in her housedress and hand-rolling the pasta every morning.

    After coming to New York City from Bologna, Italy in 1999 and working as a "coffee boy" at Serafina seven days a week, Galeano was approached by famed restaurant owner Chicco Nanni, who asked him to partner up and open Gradisca in September of 2000.

    The restaurant has a rich backstory, and its Italian roots run deep. The location has always been host to a "neighborhood Italian" joint, serving as a white-cloth Italian restaurant in the 40s and 50s, then as a trend-setting cabaret in the 70s, and a jazz supper club in the 80s and 90s.

    Having recently celebrated its thirteenth anniversary, Gradisca has renewed itself with the arrival of Creger, previously executive sous chef at Le Cirque, as executive chef.

    A native to the neighborhood himself, the chef is also partial to the village. "From 14th Street to 1st Street, it's a culinary adventure," he says.

    Galeano says that it's important to note that authentic doesn't mean stuffy - on the contrary, they offer many classics "reinterpreted with a modern twist," but not too far gone.

    "The dishes are still being respected," said Galeano. "80-year-olds from Italy come in and will be able to taste it and know what they're eating."

    Chef Creger finished his thought, "At more and more restaurants, we're seeing watered down Italian. We want to respect tradition but also put a unique spin on things," he said. Of his cooking style, he said, "It's adventurous, but it's classic. Instead of parsley, for example, we might use parsley puree or powder."

    Creger, who lives in the East Village, says that his most poignant memories are of watching his Italian mother make pasta from eye-level with the counter as a young boy. By the age of 13, he was already working in professional kitchens. He went on to work with Mark Forgione and David Burke and at Le Cirque.

    Creger's newest additions to the menu include Crème Brulée di Pecorino, sheep cheese custard under a crusty bruleed shell with a side of rosemary marmalade and the Mezzelune di Sfoglia alla Zucca, pumpkin pasta filled with ricotta and Swiss chard, woods mushrooms, sage brown butter sauce, toasted pumpkin seeds and fresh corn shoots. For dessert, he's created a Panna Cotta Zafferano e Vaniglia, saffron-vanilla custard with balsamic-soaked figs, blood orange spheres and pistachio crumble.

    Massimo, who lives directly above his restaurant, says the West Village is his favorite neighborhood because it's unlike any other in New York City. His favorite part, he says, is walking under the low-hanging trees on the sidewalk, which feels like "walking through a tunnel of flowers."

    "You always think of skyscrapers when you think of New York City, the big buildings. But here, its a little village, the small townhouses along Perry Street, the bakeries along Bleecker - it's almost like being back home in Italy," he says. "Almost."