Giano in the East Village is the kind of Italian restaurant that’s easy to love. Casual and cozy, classic and contemporary, charming and cultivated, cool and creative—if the adjectives come in pairs, that’s as it should be. Giano is named for Janus, the two-headed Roman god.
The restaurant wears its duality well, starting with its owners, Paolo Rossi and Matteo Niccoli, two guys from Milan, who met in New York, clicked and decided to follow their shared passion for food and do the impossible: open a restaurant. For Paolo, it meant setting aside a career as an industrial engineer to follow his natural talent for hospitality by becoming host and wine director; for Matteo, it meant leaving someone else’s kitchen to become executive chef and master of his own. The gods are evidently smiling: Giano has just entered its sixth year.
Duality defines the restaurant’s layout as well. The sit-down wine bar as you enter is a sleek white space dominated by a Sicilian sea-salt and resin bar, custom-made by Paolo. Just beyond the wine bar, the rustic and intimate dining room beckons, with its wood ceiling, brick hearth, bookshelves holding cookbooks (natch) and pieces of local art hanging on the walls, vivid reminders that Giano is in one of the city’s artsiest neighborhoods. Come spring and summer, the action moves outdoors to the patio.
Matteo’s cooking can best be described as classic Italian but with a modern twist. For an appetizer, his polpette al pomodoro gratinate are heavensent. There is no filler in these grass-fed beef meatballs, so how is it possible for them to be so dense yet so light? Alchemy? Ricotta and tuna croquettes continue the reconciliation-of-opposites theme, being both creamy and crunchy. Pastas are masterful and, like the breads, made in-house. When did you last taste chestnut tagliatelle? Or butternut squash risotto? The secret ingredient in Matteo’s risotto is almond powder. The pièce de résistance of appetizers, however, has to be rich but featherweight potato gnocchi made with Gorgonzola, Fontina, Parmesan and Taleggio.
A tasting of two entrées yielded superior filet mignon, glazed with balsamic vinegar and sided with hearty basil mashed potatoes, and a fillet of salmon, pan seared, finished in the oven and served slightly underdone in the center and with a hint of rosemary oil. As to wine, trust Paolo. During this particular feast, he first poured a Sangiovese from Umbria, followed by a Trebbiano from Abruzzo. Janus himself could not have done better.
While Giano’s tiramisu is universally praised (and delicious), my prize goes to Matteo’s own invention, iced cappuccino. (Of course, this being Giano, Matteo does double duty and wears a second toque as pastry chef.) It is the most exquisite gelato, the arctic blast that refreshes after a full meal.
As the evening progressed, it became abundantly clear that love manifests itself in every mouthful, in every sip and in every inch of this restaurant that Paolo and Matteo have built with their own hands. Every day is Valentine’s Day at Giano—no two ways about it.
» Giano, 126 E. 7th St., btw Ave. A & First Ave., 212.673.7200
Open for dinner Tues-Sun
Appetizers & Salads: $8.95-$13.95
Pastas & Main Courses: $12.95-$22.95