Expectation is a double-edged sword. For a new restaurant, nothing has more power to draw in new diners. It also has unparalleled opportunities to disappoint them. And Rafele Rye, which opened in June, is positively dripping with the “e” word.
First, there’s Chef Raffaele Ronca. Born, raised, and trained in Naples, at age 21 he immigrated to the United States, where he worked in New York kitchens, including Palma and now-closed Bellavitae, before opening Rafele in the West Village in 2012. Then, there’s his win on Chopped, his stamps of approval from Italian food magazine Gambero Rosso, and his famed cheesecake, named among the best in America by Food & Wine.
Naturally, when it was announced in 2018 that there would be a second Rafele, in Rye, it became one of the county’s most anticipated openings of the year. But can the restaurant live up to all that expectation?
Yes and no. The cavernous space is certainly impressive, with exposed wooden beams, a polished-stone bar, glass-encased wine cellar, pizza oven, and semi-open kitchen. You’ll hear smatterings of Italian from front-of-house staff and diners, and Rafele seems to be perpetually busy, whether it’s a weekend or a Wednesday.
The eggplant Parm, simply called “Melanzana” exceeded expectations. Almost melting slices of sweet eggplant, no breading in sight, were nestled into perfectly balanced tomato sauce with a modest smattering of mozzarella and basil. It’s easily among the best renditions I’ve had in Westchester.
Also worth ordering: intensely cheesy, golf-ball-sized arancini and small, fried pizzette with a slick of tomato sauce. Crispy artichoke hearts needed some salinity, something easily remedied by little bowls of coarse salt on every table. Meatballs were rich, meaty, and flavorful but suffered from a texture that was too dense.
Of the salads, the rughetta was the favorite and least favorite. On one visit, it was overpoweringly vinegary. Dressed lightly on another visit, it was an addictive mix of peppery arugula, shards of crispy pancetta, shaved fennel, and syrupy balsamic.
The thin-crust pizzas had crisp centers and pillowy edges. The Margherita boasted more of that balanced red sauce, plus milky buffalo mozzarella and basil. And we especially like the heat chili flakes added to a pie with house-made sausage and crisp-tender broccoli rabe.
Unfortunately, not all of the pastas lived up to expectations. The cacio e pepe didn’t have enough peppery punch, and the pecorino cheese seized into unappealing, chewy clumps. On the same visit, some bites of paccheri in a light, guanciale-studded Amatricana sauce were so hot that they burnt my mouth.
Other pasta dishes fared better. Pappardelle with braised Colorado lamb had a glossy coat of the lamb’s fatty, rosemary-flecked juices with burst cherry tomatoes and cracked black olives, adding much needed acidity and salt to the dish. Fresh fettuccini with finely chopped, braised beef Bolognese — a special on my third visit — was deserving of a regular spot on the menu.
Among the entrées, the grilled branzino was perfectly moist and served with unreasonably delicious sautéed spinach. But, the bones were frustrating to deal with, and there wasn’t much of the promised herb or white wine flavor. That herbaceousness came across better in the juicy, Amish roast chicken with burnished bronze skin. The grass-fed New York strip steak was rosy from edge to edge, if a bit under-seasoned, and paired with a bright salsa verde.
Be warned: Service comes with plenty of Italian charm but not necessarily consistency. On a particularly busy Thursday night, it took an hour for our first courses to arrive. (The waiter did apologize and comped us a round of drinks for the wait.) Another time, we’d already ordered when we heard our server reciting the specials that we’d never heard to the next table.
In the end, however, we just wanted to try the award-winning cheesecake. Turns out, it does live up to the hype. Made with buffalo-milk ricotta, it was light, creamy, and spectacularly smooth. We liked the tiramisù nearly as much, with soft, custardy cream and a pronounced coffee zip that kept us alert for the ride home.
26 Purchase St, Rye