Marea

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It’s rare to find a restaurant that strikes a perfect balance between sophisticated grandeur and homey comfort, but Marea is such a restaurant. It’s the newest restaurant from Chef Michael White, whose other restaurants–Convivio and Alto–are justifiably revered for their highbrow Italian food. I’ve been to Alto, and liked it ok, but there was something a little fussy about it. Not so, Marea. The food at Marea is robust and deeply flavorful, as comforting as any Italian food you’ve made at home, but far more accomplished and enjoyable.

For example, this calamari appetizer:

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The cliche calamari dish at an Italian joint is fried calamari in a red dipping sauce. Here, the calamari is stuffed with lobster and zucchini, grilled and served with a slow cooked tomato. The layers of flavor here are nothing short of miraculous; and the calamari itself is so stunningly fresh, you won’t believe it. It’s a great start.

But next up is far and away the best thing you will eat for months and months. It’s a dish that’s getting lots of press–Serious Eats has an elaborate “making of” post about it–and that’s the fusilli with octopus and bone marrow.

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Oh, mama. There are a few things you need to know about me to understand why I loved this dish so much. My favorite food in the world is pasta. I grew up eating pasta all the time and my favorite pasta to eat was fusilli. And my favorite way to eat it was with Prego from the jar, a thick, rich tomato sauce with chunks of meat in it.

Now that I’m a grown-up food snob, I barely give Prego a second-glance. I make my tomato sauce from scratch, and as much as I pride myself on my ability to do this, there’s something about my homemade tomato sauce that lacks the richness and meatiness of the Prego sauce of yore. And somehow this fusilli with octopus and bone marrow, however insulting this might be to chef, conjured memories of happy Prego fusilli eaten in front of the TV watching “Star Search” and fighting with my brother in the late 1980s. I mean that as the highest form of flattery!

But even outside of my weird taste-memory, this is an extraordinary dish. And if you don’t have the money for a full meal at Marea (and damn, this place is expensive–thank you, frequently visiting parents!), you should go for lunch, sit at the bar and order this. You won’t regret it, though you might get dirty looks for not ordering anything else.

My entree, halibut, was very nice:

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As was my dessert, something coconutty with something fruity on top:

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But the star of the show was definitely the pasta. It is not to be missed, and not just that pasta. All the pasta there is pretty excellent (I tried everyone else’s too) and for that alone, Marea will quickly enter the pantheon of great Italian restaurants in New York. Win the lottery and book your reservation, stat.

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