Set on a heavy balcony above the main floor of the train station, the restaurant felt attached and private at the same time; heavy banisters serve as barriers, though porous, letting the noises and eyes in. There was the odd echoing of traffic, and the passing of tourists and commuters alike, but somehow shouting was never necessary. The restaurant in some ways felt makeshift, because of the location in the middle of everything, but at the same time the bar and the heavy tables reinforce a kind of permanence. The furnishings are all refined, and almost blend into the impatience of the train station, like the restaurant is carved into the layout.
It was almost an out of body experience, eating costoso Italian food, underneath the high high high vaulted painted ceiling, under the art of the constellations and the robin egg blue sky. The ceiling almost limitless, floating high above head. It in some ways felt like eating outdoors; the height of refinement with no cap. There was a constant change of scenery, while inside the little banistered area, everyone seemed to move in slow motion, countering the back and forth motions of the anonymous people below.
The menu, though not terribly large, is dense and not descriptive, almost like it is speaking to a customer that already knows the answers. Though the wait staff encouraged questions and doled out answers including detailed ingredient lists and even technique. It did feel almost like an esoteric tree house, under the vast painted sky and above the commuters and tourists, quiet and reserved. Italian dishes and favorites lined the page; pastas, mains, a slew of appetizers, as well as a lunch prix fixe.
Deliberating over the menu through ravenous eyes took ages, and each dish that appeared in the dining area looked hot and delicious, making things even more difficult. Resolutions were made, and options narrowed (hardly) and we decided on three starters and three pastas as well as an entrée for our latecomer.
The Steak Tartar was a dark vibrant red, raw, delicious, striking on the plate. The starter was served with small rectangles of white toast and a rich creamy tuna sauce. It looked almost like tuna, but it was smooth and disguised. The thought of raw meat never crossed the mind while eating it, because it felt so delicate and fresh. The smoothness of the meat gave insight into its quality. It’s taste was so subtle and delicious it just glided on the tongue, allowing the decadence to be easily swallowed.
The Buratta starter defined the fine line between mozzarella and butter. Creamy, sumptuous, sexy. The inside was like a spreadable mozzarella, soft with fats and dairy, but the outside of the ball is a kind of skin, thick and stiffer, soft but less pliable than the liquid like center. The ball surrounded by halved cherry tomatoes, which were plum and firm and burst in the mouth. The acidity of the small tomatoes cut the heaviness of the silky cheese. Adding a subtle sprinkle of salt took it to the next level, beyond delicious. But it was a decadent experience.
After good reports of the Calamari, we ordered the starter. What arrived was fine crunchy rings of calamari and crispy tentacles. The batter was just flavored enough that the little rings and tentacles could be eaten sans sauce, but the marinara sauce that accompanied the calamari started was delicious, taking the starter from pretty ordinary to great. The crunch of the batter was lovely though all the texture of the calamari was gone.
The first dish, the Risotto Primavera was interspersed with various vegetables like squash, zucchini, mushrooms and onions. The dish was sprinkled with parsley, an aesthetic garnish, which added no flavor. In fact the risotto had no significant flavor, it was just soft and soupy, no real texture because the aborio rice was cooked almost too much and the soggy vegetables all blended together. It had no texture variation either, which made the dish very flat and not memorable.
The large ribbed rigatoni of the Rigatoni Genovese were cooked to a pleasant al dente, drowned in a creamy buttery sauce veined with slim stringy pieces of beef. The filaments though sparse had an intense meat flavor, especially for their small size and flimsy appearances. Though when the pasta was eaten without the meat and smothered in the sauce, there was no remnant of the beefy flavor. It was like the cream sauce was cooked and prepared without the beef, and the small amount of meat was an afterthought. The difference in taste did create intrigue, making each bite different depending on the strands of meat and less predictable. The rich sauce was luscious but at the same time monotone, but the beef created staccato.
The Pappardelle Amatriciana was composed of beautiful ribbons of fresh thin wide pappardelle were daintily tossed with a tomato sauce. The sauce of the dish was obviously started with a sofrito, the melding of onion, celery and tomato. Thin pieces of bacon were dispersed throughout the sauce adding salt and fat to each bite. The pasta was light and elastic, not too heavy to disguise the ingredients featured in the sauce, as well as the taste of delicious fresh pasta. It was a beautiful dish to look at as well, the muted colors and the well crafted pasta, all topped with a pop of green parsley.
The last entrée was the Veal Picatta with lemon. The thin slices of veal were lightly breaded to create a creamy sauce with hints of lemon. Unfortunately, all of the veal served was not cooked enough, still too pink on the inside for consumption.
Of the various and varied desserts, many looked promising, but the lemon meringue pie was on the top of the list. The pie had a thick sweet crust, crumbly like a graham cracker or cookie crust. The crust was buttery and crunchy like a sweet shortbread, with the same consistency as the cookie. There was a very small amount of the lemon curd, not really enough for the tart acidity to overwhelm the sweet crust or the light meringue. In some ways the tongue longed for more of the lemon bite to equalize the sweetness of the other elements. As a finish, the slice of pie was dusted with a sugar after baking adding and additional note of sweetness but also another layer of texture—a crunch to counter the lighter elements but a decisively different crispness than the crust.
In the end, the cost outweighed the quality. The food, though was delicious, could have been from almost any Italian restaurant in Grand Central or not. There was obvious care put into the food and its ingredients. The freshness of the steak tartar or the delicate pappardelle were evidence of that. But, it is the name that is chased all over that increases the price. It is a brand that is associated with the City and is sought after, perhaps, with the right to expect, demand and extract such high prices. Cipriani is an empire, as there are locations all over New York City, but also the world.
The experience was something completely different than sitting in a dimly lit restaurant, but all the accruements were still there with us in Grand Central Station; the plush seating, the heavy stocked bar, the white table cloths and napkins. But the atmosphere, the kind of in and out, private but exposed elements made it unique and timeless, even when the food did not reach the same heights.