The Upper East Side eatery takes traditional pasta dishes out for a spin
Born in a small seaside town in Sicily, Chef A.J. Black became immersed in the food industry at just six years old, washing dishes at the family restaurant and fishing for the catch of the day with his grandparents. Now, his Italian eatery Il Tesoro Ristorante & Bar (1578 First Avenue) is a far cry from just another stuffy, "authentic" Upper East Side Italian joint. Celebrating three years this month, Il Tesoro has become a neighborhood staple for locals who look forward to seeing what's next from Chef Black, who believes that the only art you can eat is food.
It seems like a lot of chefs are turning food into "art" these days.
They are, but it's usually kind of abstract. At Il Tesoro, you'll get a "realist" piece of food. You don't want to not be able to recognize it anymore. Besides, I want you to see that I've used every inch of the whole fish, for example. Not many people use the whole fish or the whole animal anymore.
You describe it as "nice Italian without pretention."
People don't have to get dressed up and impress anyone. Here, they feel like they're home. What happens here on the Upper East Side is, some restaurants only thought about the super cool foodie guys, and some thought about the Average Joe, the guy who doesn't know what shape of pasta to eat. We wanted to take both, bring them together, and say, "OK, let's all sit down and have dinner."
What makes you guys different from all of the other Italian restaurants on the Upper East Side?
Me. Every single dish has my own spin on it. I go to the market every day and ask, "What's fresh, what's cool, what's new?" Something that you might call weird is music to my ears. Today I'm serving oxtail, which is from 17th century Rome. Also, every other person says their stuff is homemade, but we make every single thing in the kitchen from scratch.
Tell me about one of your most unique dishes.
Our Lobster Agrodolce is lightly tempura fried. Agrodolce is "sweet and sour" style sauce from Sicily made with brown sugar, white wine vinegar, garlic and olive oil. We always hear about it in every other Asian restaurant, but in Italian it's a "Sicily sauce." In all of my dishes, there's always a hint of lemon or orange or nutmeg.
You also offer a lot of gluten-free options.
I became a chef to nurture people, so we have lots of gluten-free options. There's new gnocchi made out of butternut squash, with no flour at all. We have so many different kinds and shapes. People up here buy pasta out of the bag for a gluten-free option, but we make it fresh daily: farro pasta, the ceci 'chickpea pasta', the rice pasta, the polenta, and risotto, as well as the pecan pasta are all gluten-free.
Your menu is always changing seasonally. What specials do you have lined up for winter?
Homemade chestnut and chickpea capellini pasta sautéed with wild mushroom and finished in truffle cream sauce, black squid ink risotto topped with calamari and shrimp in light spicy tomato sauce, large rigatoni with pistachio pesto and seared scallop, slow braised beef short ribs served over our homemade pumpkin gnocchi, oven braised suckling pig over butternut squash risotto with green beans and mascarpone blood orange cognac sauce, and marinated grilled octopus finished with olive oil lemon and fresh herb.