The Food’s Not Bad and There’s Plenty of It: English Is Italian

English Is Italian is the new restaurant from Todd English, the man behind Olives and Figs. The idea is an exciting one: you pay $40 and you’re brought lots and lots of food. First there’s antipasto—here’s Lauren (who’s in town visiting) expressing her excitement at all the food before her:

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In that picture alone, you can see risotto balls, cod cakes, a meat platter with prosciutto and HEAD CHEESE (more on that in a moment), smoked salmon, an egg with asparagus, little toasts and three spreads: chicken liver, spring onion and pea spread.

We sampled it all and liked some things more than others. I liked the chicken liver spread better than, say, the smoked salmon. Lauren liked the risotto ball better than the egg. As for the HEAD CHEESE, I had no idea what I was eating—I saw this gray matter with seeds on top of it. I scooped some up and it was fatty and thin and weird. I asked the waiter what it was: “Testa”(???) he said (the three ???s indicate I don’t remember what word he said, I’m sure you’ll know). “What’s that?” I asked and he explained that it’s head cheese.

“The skull of a pig is placed in a pot of boiling water, while it still has flesh on it…everything that floats to the top is skimmed off, pressed, and cheese is made from it.”

Now I’m not terribly grossed out by anything, but it did surprise me that at a place like this—where the clientele seemed to be Park Avenue conservative, they’d just plop head cheese on a platter and expect to get away with that explanation. My mom, for example, if she’d been there would have fallen out of her chair and had a seizure. Luckily, I took the news with great maturity and even ate a little more. The thing is: it didn’t taste particularly good.

The next course was a pasta course:

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There’s artichoke asparagus ravioli, linguini bolognese, macaroni and cheese, and asparagus risotto. Of these, the last was the worst: the rice wasn’t cooked properly. Otherwise, the macaroni and cheese was the best: the breadcrumbs on top gave it a great crunch.

But none of these were particularly great. At this point in the evening I said: “The food’s not particularly great.”

“But there’s lots of it,” countered Lauren.

Finally, there was our entree course. Here’s white fish and brisket:

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There was also a chicken dish that Lauren fell in love with. “This chicken is amazing,” she said. The chicken practically fell off the bone.

Ultimately, though, the meal was a bit disappointing. It’s a great concept—there’s lots and lots of food. But I’d rather have two amazing dishes at Babbo than 18 better-than-average ones here. And if I’m lying you can take my head, boil it and skim the fat for your supper…

7 comments

  1. Head Cheese? ugh. It’s one of those hearty rural we’re not going to let any part of the animal go to waste foods that tastes exactly like what it is, congealed fatty gelatin. Luckily I haven’t had to eat any since childhood.

  2. Hey Adam,

    Mario Batali was one of the chefs who started serving testa in NYC. You can try it at Lupa and at Otto, maybe Casa Momo too though that place leans more towards spanish.

    I don’t really like to contemplate testa’s origins too much, but I do have to say that Mario’s version is very good.

    And as for Todd English, I have mixed feelings. He has a series of pizza places in Boston, Figs, that are great. On the casual side, food is good, get the spinach salad if it’s on the menu.

    But I went to Olives in Boston, and I have to say it’s much ado about nothing. The best dish we got was a chestnut pasta dish that was incredible. Everything else was either acceptable or practically inedible. The restaurant has an open kitchen, and we were seated pretty close. By the end of dinner, our cloths smelled like we had been working the line. Gross.

    So thanks for the heads up on English is Italian!

  3. Oh my, how disappointing. After hearing the hoopla over English Is Italian (“You get lots of food!”), I was curious as the execution. I’m sorry to hear that it fell short of your expectations. I do like the thought of being able to try a lot of dishes, but I agree with you – I’d rather have a few fabulous dishes than an array of passable ones.

  4. Yes, the testa at Babbo is incredible–light and delicate but earthy. Well worth a try.

  5. I think you will find that Hog’s Head Cheese is not really a cheese, and that it is not really made from skimmed fat. My rural Aunt would take halved hogs heads from the butcher, boil them in water for hours, then scrape the meat from the bone. Keep the meat and boiled skin, toss out the fat and bone. Grind fine with spices, press and cool. It makes an appetizer similar to pate.

    …and yes, we kids always thought it was gross and wouldn’t eat it.

  6. I agree that the food at English is mature but I loved it all. Some dishes are better than others and you get that at any restaurant you go to. This place has more great dishes than mediocre one’s! Growing up in NYC you see all kinds of food and I think that this is one of the best restaurants in its area. I recommend maybe trying it again because when I go the food is amazing and I am always pleased with the great staff.

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