“The arrival of another small, family-owned Italian restaurant to the over-saturated Manhattan dining scene is not normally cause for notice or celebration. After all, there are far too many ‘real Italian’ restaurants that are in fact operated by well-meaning folks from somewhere other than Italy, restaurants whose cook-by-numbers approach to only the safest Italian classics is used to counterbalance the eatery’s questionable authenticity. So imagine our suprise when we paid a visit to Il Melograno, a diminutive corner trattoria on a windswept section of Tenth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. The restaurant is owned and run by recent Valle Camonica transplant Alberto Tartari. With Tartari behind the stove and his wife making frequent guest appearances at the cash register and in the dining room, Il Melograno just might represent that most ephemeral of destinations in modern Manhattan– a genuine family-run Italian restaurant that takes pride in what comes out of the kitchen.
This is most evident in the pastas, all of which Il Melograno makes in house. The very best is the simplest: a spaghetti al pomodoro ($9), cooked al dente and with a savory cheese and tomato sauce, dotted with fragrant chunks of soft garlic and seasoned with plenty of freshly chiffonaded basil leaves. This dish alone makes a visit worthwhile. Nearly as extraordinary is the papardelle ($10), wide sheets of tender pasta folded over and around sweet, ground sausage, tender green peas and a spicy tomato sauce. It may be a little early in the season for this dish, but come November, I know I will be craving it. Not everything is perfect, however: a veal ravioli dish ($12) we sampled was drowned in a creamy, salty taleggio cream sauce and was excessively salty. A plate of tagliatelle (pictured below, $11) was bathed in a rich and very well-seasoned saffron cream sauce but was undone by uneven rolling of the pasta– many strands of the tagliatelle clumped together in finger-thick stacks that were almost completely uncooked, while other noodles were cooked perfectly. We also found one of the secondi piatti, a chicken paillard (pictured on Flickr, $13) cooked a touch past its prime and a bit too salty. But most puzzling was the minute sprinkle of romaine leaves and carrot strips on the plate that looked more like garnish than the ’side salad’ our server described.
Other dishes, including the appetizers, had fewer problems. An apple salad (pictured top, $8) with mesclun greens, arugula, wan tomatoes and goat cheese would have been excellent, had it not been for the roughly cut apples that made the salad tricky to eat without a sharper knife. Interestingly, the salad’s signature dressing, made from honey, olive oil and a splash of pomegranate juice includes Il Melograno’s only nod to its namesake fruit. After a few return visits, we think the trick to a good meal at Il Melograno is to focus on the always excellent soups, like the smoky white bean or musky mushroom purée (all soups $6), daily fish specials, and simple pastas – like the exceptional spaghetti described above or the gnocchi with gorgonzola ($10.50).
And despite its occasional problems, we have faith that Il Melograno will work things out quickly–we have seen Tatari himself stop by every table in the dining room during each of our visits, asking patrons about their food and listening carefully when they give him feedback. We have also seen a marked improvement in the quality of both service and pasta over the course of just two weeks. More than this, Il Melograno’s few opening month stumbles are almost entirely made up for by, of all things, its rock-solid pastry and baking prowess. In particular, the restaurant prepares springy and crusty homemade focaccia daily and serves it in a basket with a tiny bottle of good olive oil. It is easy to eat too much of it, leaving you no room for the other surprise: the very fine home-style desserts. We recommend a generous portion of the siken custardy tiramisu, as well as a spongy slice of the chocolate apple cake that is as good as any Italian nonna ever made. Like much of the rest of Il Melograno’s menu, both taste genuinely homemade despite the ocassional bell and whistle, like a delicate vanilla cream sauce–drizzled on our slice by Mrs. Tartari herself. Don’t look now, but this may well be the birth of a true mom-and-pop restaurant where the proprietors pay as much attention to their customers’ food as they would to a meal in their own home. We can’t guarantee you’ll be welcomed at Il Melograno like a long-lost son or daughter, but if things keep improving the way they have been, we do think you’ll want to come back for seconds, or possibly thirds.”
New York Magazine Restaurant Review
“Alberto Tartari used to run a restaurant near Lake Iseo in Italy’s Lombardy region, an area known for its clean air and stunning natural beauty. So who knows why he packed it all in for a corner spot in Hell’s Kitchen called Il Melograno. His menu covers the basics—salads, pasta, and panini—and offers a $9.95 lunch special.”