One Restaurant, Three Reviews
We asked three reviewers to dine together, but to write separate reviews. Three takes on Lia’s in Hartsdale
There’s often confusion about just what a restaurant reviewer does. The reviewer’s profession is not to find fault with a restaurant, but to observe and describe the total dining experience. It is, of necessity, a subjective business. This month, as an experiment, we asked three of our restaurant reviewers to appraise the same restaurant. How should you assess the results? Reading restaurant reviews is just as subjective as writing them; you find a critic whose tastes you trust. So feel free to read the following with a healthy grain of salt (or pepper, cayenne, or nutmeg) depending upon your personal preference.
By Marge Perry
With impressive credentials tucked in their back pockets, Craig and Imre Cupani opened Lia’s in Hartsdale six months ago. If you knew Craig from his past positions with high-end New York City restaurants such as 21 Club, Butterfield 81, or Patroon (where Imre still
handles party and event bookings), you may be taken aback by their new establishment’s bare wood floors and rice-paper light fixtures. Lia’s, which is named for the couple’s nine-year-old daughter, looks like a casual neighborhood place. The menu, however, delivers another message.
Yes, they serve pizza (listed as pizzettes, though their size is not as diminutive as the name suggests), but theirs are not at all reminiscent of those at the local pizzeria. A lovely thin crust offers a crisp vehicle to bring (in our case) melted mozzarella, ricotta, Parmesan, and the occasional sweet shock of whole roasted garlic cloves to your mouth. Other enticing toppings are also available.
Decidedly sophisticated ingredients make it clear that, despite the casual appearance, there is some serious cooking going on here. One of my dining companions did not want to share her butternut-squash ravioli, swimming in sage brown butter, but it was forgivable. This classic dish was everything it should be: the sweet and mildly spiced squash filling blossomed in the rich butter sauce, while the abundance of sage provided some restraint. I bribed her with some of my crab cake, made with jumbo lump crab with barely any binders so that only the crisp brown crust seemed to hold it together. A creamy remoulade sauce spiked with bits of pickle and caper added elegance and interest.
There seems to be a sweet tooth in the kitchen at Lia’s, but it is generally under control. Most of our savory dishes contained a sweet element: moist salmon was served on top of naturally sweet root vegetables and farro (the nutty Italian grain better known in the U.S. as spelt), and drizzled with a sweet-tart aged balsamic.
Short ribs, on the other hand, went too far and tasted more like candy than dinner. The meltingly rich meat was coated in a syrupy glaze and served over a bed of naturally sweet parsnip purÃ©e.
Roasted branzino, a type of Mediterranean striped bass, fared better. Long-cooked, honey-glazed little cipollini onions and fennel offered sweet peeks from under the mild fish, which was served with the crisped skin intact and a subtle tang of lemon.
Desserts were uneven. A pleasant enough panna cotta couldn’t make up for the “ick” factor of finding raw dough in the middle of my zeppole. But, aside from this one rather egregious error, it was clear a seasoned professional was manning the kitchen. The food is prepared to exacting standards, and the plates, in general, thoughtfully composed.
By Diane Weintraub-Pohl
The professional lives of chef Craig Cupani and his wife Imre have been far from routine, having worked at Manhattan’s estimable Patroon, 21 Club, and Tabla. But they’ve since traded urbanity for suburbia, and those marquee names for that of their little girl, Lia. Their restaurant’s austere wood-and-brick proclaims their lack of pretentions and their focus on the simple and familiar.
And so you’re greeted with restaurant manager Imre’s gracious smile and
a bowl of herb-flecked olives. You’re soothed with a menu filled with brick-oven-baked pizzettes, house-made pastas, easy salads, and hearty ragouts.
This is food that’s meant to nurture, not impress. But take one bite of the pizzette bianco’s roasted-garlic-studded melt of ricotta, Parmesan, and mozzarella, and impressed you will be. Chef Cupani may have forsaken haute cuisine for cucina rustica, but haute still glimmers in silky butternut squash ravioli lashed with proscuitto and sautÃ©ed sage leaves. This artful balance totters, however, in a flood of brown butter, and that’s not a lone misstep. A special of steamed mussels surges with chorizo and saffron voltage, but stalls in a wan, diluted broth. An arugula, endive, and radicchio salad seems a sure bet, expertly partnered with tangy goat-cheese crostini, but a bland dressing relegates it to irrelevance.
There’s a pattern here. Cupani’s flavor combinations are compelling, his contrasts seductive, but the underpinnings are weak. The paint is all there, it’s the canvas that needs work.
Braised-beef short ribs nestled atop potato-parsnip purÃ©e are a homespun triumph, soothing as a child’s embrace. But the piquant meat and purÃ©e are plenty sweet, so the sauce doesn’t need to be. No quibbling, though, with the penne’s ragout of peas, slow-roasted tomatoes, and shredded lamb, the meat braised to indelible succulence.
Braising meat is largely a function of time, cooking fish more a function of skill. And boy is Cupani skilled. His salmon sings beneath its expert sear, its richness buoyed by farro suffused with a root vegetable dice. And then there’s his branzino. Simply, divine.
If the fish inspires reverie, dessert’s panna cotta just inspires. Infused with lemon, crowned with berries and candied peel, the custard is ephemeral silk. Crisp fried ricotta-filled zeppole seem inspirational too, until the centers reveal under-cooked dough. At this juncture in culinary evolution, molten chocolate cake is too clichÃ©d to ever be inspired. But then again, there’s a lot to be said for the simple and familiar.
By Dina Cheney
My heart went out to lia’s in Hartsdale as I and two other restaurant critics, along with the editor-in-chief of this magazine, were about to dine there together and pen separate reviews. If I were the owner of the friendly, cozy establishment (and omniscient as well), I might have
experienced cardiac arrest. Fortunately, no one was the wiser, and Lia’s satisfied, with its well-executed, unpretentious Italian food.
We began with the bianco pizza, its thin crust blanketed with the richness of ricotta, the ooze of fresh mozzarella, and the nuttiness and tang of Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese. Next came the hockey puck-sized crab cake, singing with sweet pepperonata and surrounded by a crisp crust. The cake was so good that three of us finished it before the fourth could take a bite. The butternut squash ravioli with sage and brown butter sauce was flavorful, though the dough could have been more tender. The mussel special sported an enticing contrast between the floral notes of saffron and the saltiness and savor of diced chorizo.
Though Lia’s does not offer a “by-the-glass” wine list, if you ask for a glass, they’ll happily accommodate you. Sipping Shiraz, I relished the fall-off-the-bone beef short ribs special, served with sweet mashed parsnips. Both the roasted branzino and the brick-oven salmon were cooked perfectly. Likewise, the braised lamb in penne with peas and tomatoes was tender and flavorful, but could have used a richer sauce, rather than the thin broth that accompanied it.
Dessert also impressed. The molten chocolate cake was delicious (when is chocolate not?). The vanilla bean-flecked panna cotta was creamy, lemony, and refreshing. The zeppole (fritters), though, yes, a bit raw in the center, were nevertheless addictive. I couldn’t stop dunking them in their sauces and feeling bliss.
Lia’s service was polite and gracious, which was especially noteworthy, given the fact that our party remained for three hours and was the last to depart. Also comforting was the dÃ©cor: gray-blue walls, massive mirrors, and colorful glass vases. Though a bit simple, the ambience was pleasing. Just like Lia’s itself.
202 E. Hartsdale Ave., Hartsdale
Lunch, Mon. to Fri. 12-2:30 pm
Dinner, Tue. to Thurs. and Sun. 5-10 pm, Fri. and Sat. 5-10:30 pm
Sunday dinner, 3-9 pm Sunday