To Tour Italy, Start in Islip—at Verace

Caprese salad, anyone? • Photo courtesy of Verace

Italy is a culinary inspiration. There are more Italian-American restaurants on Long Island than you could shake a fist at, from pizza parlors to fine dining restaurants and everything in between. And yet, how authentic are they?

Truth be told, the answer very often is “not very.”

That’s not to say they’re not great; we Long Islanders do Southern Italian- and Sicilian-influenced dishes like nobody’s business. And although you won’t find spaghetti and meatballs at a real trattoria in the Old Country—where asking for chicken parm will elicit lots of head-shaking and confusion even in the streets of Naples—that doesn’t change the fact that it’s damned delicious.

But don’t we also deserve the real deal?

Pentimento in Stony Brook thought so, and partnered with a wine distributor to pair staples from different regions for their Passport to Italy series. Unfortunately, this program was retired, leaving a gap in our landscape for true Italian.

That’s where Verace steps in, living up to its name and tagline with their limited-time Taste of Italy Wednesday night wine dinners. Launched May 3, leading with Venice, Chef Mike Maneris shares, “It’s a fun way to educate people on the cuisine of Italy and how it changes from North to South. Italian cuisine is more diverse [than you’d imagine]!”

Rome, Tuscany, Naples, Sicily, Veneto and Capri are all fair game every Wednesday until June 21, the last night of this theme before they switch over to a Long Island Wine Dinner series.

When asked how he chooses what dishes and regions to feature, Maneris says, “I wanted to choose regions that were known for some of the most popular Italian dishes, things I knew people would get excited about. For the menus, I went beyond focusing on the region and honed in on the season as well. I wanted to make sure the dishes were what people there would eat as the weather gets nicer,” adding seasonality to the angle of authenticity.

“Italian food is simple,” he elaborates. “The ingredients speak for themselves. For example, when preparing the Cacio e Pepe”—literally cheese and pepper, a very traditional pasta preparation in the Lazio region of central Italy—“I made sure we had great quality pecorino romano cheese ordered in right from Rome.”

It’s details like this that have set Verace apart and continue to do so in a competitive culinary space here in New York. An emphasis on real, quality ingredients and clean preparations where fresh components really sing with clear, unadulterated notes has made this restaurant this particular writer’s favorite. But to be fair, it was the fresh-made pasta that first won me over; everything else is just the token (but tasty!) sprinkle of cheese.

With so much care and thought put into the menus for this series, there’s a lot to look forward to. The Rome night also featured a grilled branzino and a ricotta—historically best had in this ancient capital—and fig torta dessert drizzled with a sweet amaro reduction.

The Venice dinner offered seared gnocchi, the pasta of choice in the Floating City, where polenta or risotto is more typical than spaghetti. This was the lead-in to a seared black cod and fennel risotto main course while tiramisu, whose origins are popularly traced back to Venice, ended the meal.

For future dinners, you can expect farro risotto topped with a roasted pork chop, real southern Italian buffalo mozzarella, traditional frutti di mare, spaghetti alla Norma with ricotta salata in real Sicilian tradition, Nutella-laced sweets, Limoncello panna cotta, and a lot more.

For those of us who travel to eat, the menus promise to be a real throwback to memorable meals abroad. And for those of us who haven’t been able to make it to Italy—well, here’s your chance, because for only $30 per person for three courses and $10 more to add wine pairings, this promises to be the most affordable way to visit Italy yet!