Fork and Spoon were recently invited to our first press dinner at Max. We were very nervous at this prospect. What if we hated it? Would people feel our review was credible if we were invited to review the restaurant and weren’t paying for our meal? We decided to continue our review process regardless of the situation. If we loved it we would say so, and if we hated it or disliked certain things, we would say that as well – as we always have.
Max is FABULOUS. Max’s owner, Luigi, is charming and endearing and so passionate about his restaurants, his vision, the food he serves, and where that food comes from.
We thought that, perhaps, the name Max came from one of his children, maybe his father, but no, Max is an Italian magazine. It’s about the hippest trends and the current cool people. After eating here, we can understand the name choice!
Max is a small Italian restaurant in the East Village. Charming and warm, you instantly feel at home when you walk through the doors. There is a lovely dining room in the front, a small bar in the back, with a few more tables, an enclosed patio that seats about 18 more and then a garden dining space (seating 50) that literally transports you to a small palazzo in Italy.
What isn’t made in house is made by small artisans throughout the City and imported from and made for Luigi in Italy. The bread comes from Il Forno in the Bronx. The pasta is made for them in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The extra virgin olive oil, mozzarella, and tomatoes are made for Max and flown into the States. Doesn’t get much more authentic than that. You couple all of these wonderfully fresh ingredients with Luigi’s passion and you understand how this restaurant has been around for so long.
Our adventure began with Salsetta and bread for dipping. The Salsetta is a dipping sauce that is presented to diners while they’re looking through the menu. A little taste of what treats are awaiting you. The Salsetta – loosely translated to a salsa or dip – is made from roasted tomatoes, lemon and orange peels, olives, extra virgin olive oil. Just incredible. So fresh. If the bowl had been a tiny bit bigger, we may have swam in it! If this is what the first step was like the rest of the adventure was going to be great!
Just so you know in advance, this was not a meal for the faint of heart! Excluding the Salsetta, the menu said we would sample 13 different dishes (in abundance) – but there were more – and at least 5 wines. By the way, the wine list is absolutely wonderful.
Our next taste was Crostino Toscano. Chicken liver pate on sliced, toasted bread. The pate was warm and creamy, rich and flavorful. There was a slight undertone of anchovy which cut the richness of the pate with a bit of saltiness.
Next on this adventure, Luigi brought Melanzane a Funghetto to the table. By the way we were mesmerized by Luigi and his descriptions of his dishes – but we digress just a bit – back to the melanzane. This dish is typically a southern Italian dish. The melanzane (eggplant) is cooked in the style of funghetto (mushrooms). First the eggplant is pan fried and then roasted low and slow with tomatoes and garlic and parsley and basil – some folks add capers and olives to the mix. As it roasts the eggplant becomes meaty and rich, taking on almost the texture of mushrooms (see? si!). Wonderfully earthy dish.
Our next sampling was fabulous, smooth and creamy Mozzarella di Bufala. This mozzarella is made from the milk of water buffalo. THe water buffalo milk gives the mozzarella a slightly different flavor – a slight sour flavor. Luigi’s mozzarella di bufala is imported for him from Cilento, Italy, just south of Salerno (just south of Altavilla Silentina, as well, where part of Fork’s Cutlery were forged). Again, attention to detail and ingredients. We asked for more basil so each of us could have a little basil leaf with our mozzarella. This was one of those situations where Fork wished there was a hidden ziplock nearby to scoop up the mozzarella for a treat later. Note to self, stick ziplocks in your pockets!
Next came an Inslata Misto – mixed salad. A little rest before the next push forward. Fresh greens with a light dressing. Perfect at this point!
The ravioli changes everyday. With a small kitchen – and the space needed to make the amount of pasta needed daily – it would be impossible for them to make all the pasta there. The pasta for the ravioli is also made for Luigi in Brooklyn, but filled at Max. This ravioli – let me just say, my tines are swooning just thinking about this dish again – was heavenly. Ravioli di Porcini in Crema Tartufata. Mama Mia! Though the menu said ravioli this was shaped more like an agnolotti - half moon shaped. The pasta was filled with porcini mushrooms. You would think that would be enough. Nope not enough. The pasta was blanketed in a cream and truffle sauce. Tiny pieces of truffle and cream. The aroma alone was heady. The flavor nearly beyond words. Bravo!
Just a note: One of the other diners didn’t like mushrooms, so ravioli with lobster was brought to the table as well.
Next up? Lasagna Fatta en Casa. House made lasagna. The pasta was perfectly cooked – slightly al dente. The beef inside added a lot of flavor to the lasagna, but was not overwhelming. The bechamel sauce rich and creamy, perfectly blending with the cheeses inside. There’s a little hint of a spice throughout the lasagna – a spice we promised not to reveal – but it gives the dish a certain warmth that is unmistakable.
Loosen your belts. There’s still more!
Our next pasta dish was Fettuccine al Sugo Toscano. Yummmmmmy. Al dente fettuccine – again, made for Max in Brooklyn. With a wonderful tomato based meat sauce. A little bit of cream. A lotta bit of flavor.
What I loved about each and every one of these dishes is the earthiness about them. I know there are some folk out there that will see this next statement the wrong way, but there is a wonderful peasant quality to them. These aren’t fancy schmancy dishes, but dishes that you would eat at your grandmother’s table or when visiting friends. I remember driving through the country side in southern Italy with some of my Cutlery drawer and stopping at a small restaurant. There really was no menu to speak of, and not a lot of choices, but what was served was over the moon good. That is the feeling I instantly felt from Luigi and Max.
Before we get to the last dish in the pasta round, all of the canned tomatoes used in the sauces are imported from the Tuscany region of Italy. Luigi brought a gigunda (a little bigger than gigantic) can to the table and opened it for us to see. These were the freshest and brightest canned tomatoes I have ever tasted. The scent from the can and the brightness of the tomatoes was of a quality that you would never expect from a can of tomatoes. Again, a place where a hidden ziplock bag would have come in handy – though tomatoes would have been far more difficult to sneak into a ziplock and slip into a pocket!
Ok, the last of our pasta endeavor was Spaghetti Chitarra al Ragu d’Agnello. Okay, let’s start with the pasta. The pasta is a like spaghetti, but instead of being round, it’s square. The pasta is cut on a chitarra, which means guitar in Italian. The dough is pushed through the strings, making it square. Now the ragu. Again, fabulous tomato sauce base, this time with a ragu of ground lamb. You could smell and taste from the ragu that this had been cooked for a long time, allowing all the flavors to meld into a deep, rich, hearty ragu.
And again, here, one of the diners was vegetarian, so Luigi brought hergnocchi. And, of course, you can’ bring gnocchi to one person and not bring it to everyone, so we all sampled the gnocchi. Unlike the pasta, the gnocchi is made in-house. Light and fluffy, completely delicious!
Fork has never been a fan of Baccala. I don’t quite get, catching a beautiful fish, drying it out in salt, and then putting it into some sort of liquid to reconstitute it. And besides, to Joe Stiff, a Baccala was always someone who was dopey! But this Filetto di Baccala al Forno was amazing. Beautifully pan seared baccala (cod fish) finished with a little truffle oil, served alongside the fluffiest, most delicious mashed potatoes this piece of cutlery has ever tried! Luigi, you have won me over on baccala, but only if I have it at Max!
Our last main course dish was O’Polpettone ”E Mamma”. Polpettone is simply a rolled meatloaf. Inside this meatloaf was an egg, ham, mozzarella and parmigiano. For this dish, Luigi served us a regular portion that diners are served when they come to the restaurant for dinner. The polpettone is huge – like a nerf football in size. When you cut into the polpettone, the mozzarella just oozes out. The entire polpettonei s drenched in a deep rich marinara sauce. Now, my notes here say, that the regular mozzarella is made in-house. I may have been a bit tipsy from wine and food at this point, so forgive me if this is not right! Served alongside the polpettone – and almost the star of this dish was a gratin. A simple potato gratin, about 4 ” thick, studded throughout with pieces of pancetta. Oh, ziplock bag, why have you forsaken me!?
So we have managed to get through all the antipasti, primi and secondi. Now, we’re off to the dolci.
First up, Tiramisu. Max serves their tiramisu in a sundae-type glass. This is a nice change from the usual squares of tiramisu that are usually plopped in front of you. The savoiardi still had texture and were not a mass of mush. The filling was light and airy. The alcohol was not over the top.
We also sampled their Panna Cotta. This was a delicious and decadent dense version of this dessert. It was wonderful. The panna cotta sat in a pool of golden caramel-ish goodness. It was more of a cross between a creme caramel, a flan and a panna cotta. The fresh slices of strawberry just drove it over the edge.
Our last dessert was Creme Brulee. Now, Luigi would like us to believe that this is an Italian dessert. I don’t think that went over to well with Spoon. But this was very good creme brulee. Perfect crack and crunch from the burnt sugar topping, revealing a creamy and rich custard beneath the shatter.
Sigh. We’re full just writing this! Luigi served the most wonderful Moscato d’Asti this Fork has ever had with dessert. La Caudrina. If you love Moscato d’Asti – as I do – buy this one!
Just to drive home our opening remarks – we absolutely loved Max, we love Luigi, we think you should go to this restaurant, over and over again, we know we will! Our opinions have absolutely nothing to do with our being invited to try this wonderful restaurant.
Max also has a location in Tribeca at 181 Duane Street. Try one of them, try them both, but please try them!