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Square Meal for a Square Deal

Fine Dining at Modest Prices

by John Mariani

An extravagant but affordable dish from Moshulu in Philadelphia
An extravagant but affordable dish from Moshulu in Philadelphia

Believe it or not, I honestly think it is easier to dine well at a modest price today than ever before. I should add that it is also easier to pay more than ever before, with main courses in many upscale restaurants, including steakhouses, edging into the $40 range. At Alain Ducasse’s new MIX in Las Vegas, there is a rib-eye steak topped with foie gras and truffle sauce that sells for $75 per person — which, of course, would be just a run-of-the-mill tab for even an appetizer at a first-class restaurant in Paris!

Still I contend that you can eat splendidly well in the U.S. — especially if you take advantage of fixed-price and tasting menus, which can cost well less than that $75 rib-eye. And if you go for lunch, the bargains can be astounding.

A Spiaggia steak
A Spiaggia steak

In New York City, which some might consider the most expensive city in America, there is great food to be had in ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown, the Italian community of Arthur Avenue and the Greek community in Astoria. But even in midtown Manhattan, great deals abide. Much as I love the grilled Greek seafood at the incredibly expensive Estiatorio Milos, I am happier still to find the same high quality at Ethos (495 Third Ave., 212-252-1971) at a much lower price, and in a much friendlier, taverna-like atmosphere. Owners John Capetanos, John Colombus, Kyriakos Depountis and chef Costas Avlonitis are clearly the kinds of restaurateurs who treat every customer with genuine respect. From dishes like tender octopus skaras grilled over charcoal with olive oil and lemon to some of the best spanakopita I've ever tasted, the food here is superlative. Choose among impeccably grilled tsipoura (porgy), kalogria (sea bass), barbounia (red mullet), lavraki (striped bass) and others. With a good bottle of Agiorgitiko, I am as happy as Alcaeus when he wrote, "Throw a log on the fire and mix the flattering wine." With appetizers from $6 to $13, main courses $14 to $24, and whole fish priced by the pound from $14 to $19, this is a remarkable and wonderful place to feast in midtown.


Manhattan and its surroundings have more restaurants serving Italian food than any other cuisine (and supposedly more than Florence), but many now charge in excess of $20 for a plate of pasta. One of the newest and best, however, Lisca (660 Amsterdam Ave., 212-799-3987), is a darling storefront on the Upper West Side whose modest décor and size are reminiscent of the best, true trattorie in Italy. Chef Aldo Monosi is always bounding about the room making sure you are enjoying yourself. I think Lisca is setting a real standard for Italian cooking in the city, which is too often caught up in trendy new ways to make pizza or put caviar and smoked salmon into pastas. Instead, you will find imagination and tradition seamlessly married in dishes like pan-seared scallops with cauliflower puree and truffle oil ($12); rigatoni with hot and sweet sausage, peas and a creamy tomato sauce ($10); and a traditional Tuscan stew, called cacciucco, abundant with five fish, at only $24. Even the massive osso buco here, served with risotto alla Milanese, is only $24.

Moshulu
Moshulu

I am not much for tourist attractions that happen to serve food, but Moshulu in Philadelphia, a 100-year-old, 394-foot, four-masted sailing ship anchored at Penn's Landing, now has a restaurant among the best in Philly, thanks to owner Martin Grims and chef-partner Ralph Fernandez. Plus, you get a wonderful sense of maritime history and a grand view of the city.

There are several dining rooms here, and, of course, plenty of banquet facilities and private dining areas, some outdoors on the deck. Big-hearted in his portions, skidding just shy of showing off too much, Fernandez makes food based on impeccably reduced sauces and superb ingredients. So when you begin with a lobster bisque with a touch of Amontillado, minced chives and truffled shrimp salsa ($10), you taste how he can take a rich, creamy classic and give it a contemporary flair very much his own. His Latino roots show well in his venison taco, with a roasted-garlic-and-Parmesan croustade with warm chorizo sausage and a Ca

esar salad dressing ($9). Supremely succulent white truffle-glazed Lancaster chicken with a wild mushroom crepe and Madeira jus is a triumph, especially at just $22. Swordfish ($26) is tender, succulent and infused with the scent of apple-smoked bacon, with French lentils and a port reduction. Moshulu has a very good and fairly tariffed wine list. Prices for appetizers run $6.95 to $12.95, with entrées between $22 and $32.

Café Spiaggia
Café Spiaggia

Unquestionably one of the finest Italian restaurants in the U.S. is Spiaggia, a posh dining room overlooking Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. At the adjacent Café Spiaggia, I find the food every bit as delicious, if not quite so lavish, and also much cheaper. Both restaurants are overseen by chef Tony Mantuano, and the wine list by sommelier Henry Bishop, who simply won't ever let you make the wrong choice, whatever your budget is.

Chef Tony Mantuano
Chef Tony Mantuano

Mantuano and Café chef Richard Camarota consistently hit the nail with simple but richly flavorful classic Italian dishes somewhat above the trattoria level but still keeping simplicity foremost in mind. Nantucket bay scallops, lusciously sweet in their own right, are lightly marinated with lemon, olive oil and a sprinkling of thyme; grilled sardines are treated to a fresh salsa verde; the Abruzzese spaghetti alla chitarra comes with a lusty sauce of braised duck, while fat agnolotti are stuffed with fennel pollen and crispy veal breast. Equally rustic, authentic and satisfying are such main courses as a wood-roasted flatiron steak with creamy polenta and porcini, and saddle of lamb with spinach and white beans. Desserts include a bittersweet chocolate semifreddo and happy little Italian sweet fritters with a moscato grappa zabaglione. Appetizers in the Café run $7 to $14, entrees $20 to $27.

Take the above restaurants as inspirational examples to help you seek out meals that are every bit as delicious as they are reasonably priced.

John MarianiJohn Mariani is well known for his frank and poignant writing in Esquire, Wine Spectator, Diversion and the Harper Collection. He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink and co-author, with his wife, of the Italian-American Cookbook.

(Updated: 03/16/11 CT)

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