It's easy to get a little biased when you have a great meal that is complemented with the honor of meeting the owner and hearing his passions, but my 100-course (or so it seemed) dinner at East Village mainstay Max was legitimate even without this, I promise.
The menu is not convoluted like so many, it focuses on what the trattoria has been doing well since opening in 2000: simple, rustic dishes with a slight lean towards southern Italian specialties. Luigi (who is also the executive chef and wine director) will tell you over and over that these are the simple basics. He is half being the sincere humble person he is and half just telling the truth. The beauty of this cuisine is not reinventing the wheel, it is the tried and tested success of core ingredients and combinations. "Nothing is being invented here," he will tell you.
I have two recommendations to start any evening here, besides a great bottle of wine. The first is the caprese ($9.95, above), a dish of six balls of mozzarella di bufala. You will be very hard-pressed to find a better version of this anywhere, the textures changing from the outside in. Combine this with the lovely melanzane a funghetto ($5.95, not shown), a basil tomato sauce eggplant bowl that can also be eaten well with the bread.
I was enjoying a tasting menu on this occasion, so the portions of everything below are smaller than normal, the prices included are for the normal versions.
After this barrage of red sauced pastas and almost bursting from the inside already, the highlight of the night came out, the porcini ravioli with black truffle cream sauce ($13.95, below), which you could smell the truffles on immediately. If I were the type of person that made "best of" lists, this dish would definitely be included.
After this, it was almost torture to force down the filetto di baccala al forno ($15.95, below), a pan-seared cod fish. I would be lying to say I did not enjoy it immensely though, even if I was hoping not to so that I could spare my stomach. From the first bite I knew I would have to eat this entire dish as well, as the fish and garlicky mashed potatoes made such a good combination.
For the prices of food here, Max has to be some of the best value Italian in this city. You probably will not find this quality of food at this price point anywhere else. Simple. Basic. Authentic. Gut-busting. It would have been a good idea to walk home on this day had it not been five degrees below freezing and windy.
51 Avenue B, New York NY
181 Duane Street, New York NY