I keep hearing chefs talk about bagna càuda. But it’s almost impossible to find here in its classic form: a warm dip of garlic and anchovies cooked tenderly in olive oil, served in a fondue-like pot with crudités for dunking. In its native Piedmont, Italy, it means “hot bath,” and, if it’s done right, you might just want to jump in—who can resist those flavors, married in fat? Dishes inspired by it, however, are popping up on trendier menus, and what began as a medieval harvest celebration for vineyard workers is now haute lunch (not often found at dinner).
Can’t take the taste of anchovies? Bagna càuda is a perfect gateway. The flavor tends to lurk in the background, providing a hint of the savory fifth taste—umami. (Lore has it that the peasants used strong flavors to stick it to the nobility, combining the garlic they were required to grow with special-occasion anchovies, salt, and olive oil bartered or smuggled from nearby regions.)
Bagna càuda oiled its way into neighboring France (Nice, specifically), where it’s served with a hard-boiled egg and baguette. The French were so inspired by the Italian import that they birthed two offspring—a salad and a sandwich—that incorporate oil-cured tuna as a central ingredient: the salade Niçoise and the pan bagnat. Variations of these two fishy, oily, garlicky dishes as well as other bagna càuda-influenced fare can be had at the following nine restaurants.
Sorell’s tuna “pan bagna” with roasted peppers and capers
Chef and co-owner Scott Fratangelo is on fire with L’inizio, his new Italian farm-to-table resto in Ardsley, after his success with Manhattan’s Spigolo and previous stints at Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe. He fell in love with bagna càuda while assisting at a cooking demo at a Hamptons home through a friend’s restaurant there. “People tend to run from the strong flavors [i.e., anchovies]. So I decided to use bagna càuda as a base to cream into soft butter—I love mixing it into things, and it’s great with bread,” he says.
His variation on an antipasto from Spigolo is not to be missed: baked stuffed Little Neck clams topped with bacon from Cortlandt Manor’s Hemlock Hill Farms, in a bagna càuda compound butter sauce. The sauce’s understated flavors, in tandem with the unctuous butter/olive oil combo, put the dish over the top; we asked for a spoon so as not to waste a drop.
And now—lucky us!—he’s contemplating serving traditional bagna càuda as a special. Well, not too traditional—the dippers, in this case, being mussels instead of crudités.
At Tarrytown’s eco-chic Hudson River waterfront RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen, recently named Best New Restaurant (South) in this magazine, Chef John Holzwarth, who trained under Lidia Bastianich, makes a wonderful local and sustainable Niçoise salad with seared, rare, line-caught Montauk tuna; native shell beans; fresh fava beans; crispy capers; and a hard-boiled Hudson Valley pullet egg. But the seared tuna Niçoise at Mint Premium Foods, also in Tarrytown, vies for your affection with a fried egg on top of salad boasting paddlefish caviar, green olives, cornichons, and parsley, reflecting owner Hassan Jarane’s international influences and front-room gourmet shop. Fried egg? “I like to play around with dishes and have fun,” he says. Other creative takes on the Niçoise trend are found at Underhills Crossing (Bronxville), sprinkled with pine nuts, and tuna sitting in a creamy anchovy spread; Le Provençal (Mamaroneck), with salmon; and Hudson Grille (White Plains), with Niçoise tomato-olive vinaigrette, eggs on mayo, and oven-roasted grape tomatoes.
A classic pan bagnat from Méli-Mélo
An excellent tuna pan bagna panini can be had at New Rochelle’s Sorell Wine Bar Bistro, a new wine bar and farm-driven bistro. Chef Christopher Daly, who’s worked at Bouley and with Thomas Keller of Per Se and The French Laundry, prepares a mostly local, organic version. “The dish is close to my heart,” Chef Daly says, noting that pan bagna (“bathed bread”) dates to Roman antiquity and its emphasis on baths. He includes the dish in his classes for kids through his not-for-profit Hip4Kids (Hospitality Industry Professionals for Kids), which works with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and other organizations to educate about healthy eating and combat obesity. “Kids are amazed that you can make a tuna sandwich without mayo! I show them that you can use herbs and olive oil instead of saturated fat and it’s still delicious.” His open-face sandwich at Sorell, made with European oil-packed tuna (he’s working on sourcing fresh from Montauk), is gorgeously adorned with roasted red peppers, sliced red onion, capers, hard-boiled organic eggs, local greens, Hudson Valley green garlic (when in season), and white anchovies, and comes with cornichons and house-cured olives made with cumin, fennel, caraway, thyme, rosemary, and garlic.
Méli-Mélo in Greenwich, Connecticut, makes a classic pan bagnat with high-end canned tuna, balsamic vinaigrette, anchovies, fresh tomato, cured olives, mesclun salad, and homemade dressing. Still not down with anchovies? Still want your mayo? You’ll have to cross the Tappan Zee to Patisserie Didier Dumas in Nyack, New York, where Chef Didier Dumas Americanizes the sandwich using good old tuna salad.