As guests stroll into the dining room of Osteria del Principe on Manhattan’s East 23rd Street, one of the first sights to greet them is a large glass display case built into the counter of the restaurant’s gleaming exhibition kitchen. The cabinet prominently exhibits a cornucopia of salumi, or cured Italian meats — prosciutto di Parma, speck, mortadella, bresaola, and, not least of all, aged prosciutto di San Daniele.
It should come as no surprise that salumi would appear to figure so intrinsically in the year-old restaurant’s identity. Osteria del Principe is the U.S. flagship restaurant of Principe, Italy’s leading supplier of prosciutto. And while the renowned city of Parma — which boasts its own world-class prosciutto — is represented among Principe’s menu of artisanal products, it is the tender and buttery prosciutto of San Daniele — a hill town in Italy’s Friuli region — that represents the jewel in the company’s culinary crown.
Friuli together with Venezia Giulia comprises the compact region situated along the crest of the Adriatic Sea. Although the agriculturally based Friuli has not been recognized historically as one of Italy’s more influential culinary regions, many say its most characteristic products — prosciutto and other pork products from San Daniele, white wines, grappa and the celebrated Montasio cheese — are unsurpassed in quality. At the same time, the busy seaport of Trieste, the capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, is famous for many of its local seafood dishes.
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A Casual Ambience
The cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia also encompasses a geographic diversity not often found in other areas of Italy. Culinary influences are apparent from its proximity to neighboring Austria and Slovenia, as well as the Veneto situated further to the south. But while Osteria del Principe’s kitchen prepares a variety of dishes from other regions throughout Italy, its menu nevertheless is rooted in the northernmost section of the country, say Massimiliano Cortese and Carlotta Paolini, the husband-and-wife team who run the restaurant for Principe.
The couple is not new to the restaurant game. They previously owned and operated a popular seafood restaurant in Trieste until the owner of Principe — a local fan — persuaded them to pull up stakes and move stateside to run the Osteria. Their familiarity with the Friuli-Venezia Giulia, its products and rich cuisine helped to give shape to the restaurant, which must compete with New York City’s hundreds of other fine Italian places.
Rather than attempt to deliver a formal dining experience, though, the decision was made to recreate the ambience and cuisine of an Italian osteria, a more casual style of restaurant that people can visit at any time of the day, order a glass of wine with prosciutto or bruschetta, or sit down to a more structured multi-course meal. Like its Italian counterparts, Osteria del Principe’s décor is a touch rustic, the menu is succinct and moderately priced, and the service warm and informal — “like mama was there,” says Paolini, who together with Cortese, strive to ensure that all of the restaurant’s guests are treated warmly and made to feel welcome.
In keeping with the osteria theme, the restaurant’s decor reflects the region’s more rural roots. The walls are hung with distressed farmhouse window frames, the paint peeling off, and large photographic murals that capture prosciutto making in San Daniele in the 1940s. A long, wooden picnic-style table in the back of the restaurant can accommodate parties of up to 10 guests and contributes to the Osteria’s homey feel.
To be sure, the restaurant serves as a showcase for prosciutto di San Daniele, which owes its delicate, sweet flavor to a microclimate benefiting from both the cool, aromatic mountain air from the Alps and the warm, salty currents from the Adriatic. But the dry-cured prosciutto and other varieties of salumi form only one dimension of the Osteria del Principe’s multifaceted menu.
The restaurant incorporates a range of regional preparations and ingredients, which include full-flavored soups, polenta, gnocchi, goulash, beans, asparagus, mushrooms, fish and shellfish. Cheese, chiefly in the form of Montasio, also factors into the cuisine. Montasio takes its name from the Montasio massif in Friuli, where it is said to derive its sweet, nutty flavor from the milk of pasture-fed local cows and the cool mountain air.
Since 1984 genuine Montasio has been officially branded by the Consorzio per la Tutela del Formaggio Montasio, or Consortium for the Protection of Montasio Cheese. In March 1986 it obtained the acknow-ledgement of denomination of origin by presidential decree.
Montasio is the starring ingredient in one of Friuli’s better-known dishes, frico, which is offered as a weekly special at the Osteria. To prepare the dish, grated Montasio is melted on the griddle or in a hot pan until crispy and golden brown, then filled with a traditional combination of cooked onion and potatoes. It is topped with speck Alto Adige. In Friuli frico also can be served with other vegetables or even a sweet filling of fruit.
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Another of Osteria del Principe’s more popular cheese dishes, San Daniele e Burrata, finds aged San Daniele prosciutto paired with fresh Burrata cheese. Paper-thin slices of 16-month-old prosciutto are arranged atop what appears to be a ball of Mozzarella. However, cutting into the room-temperature cheese reveals the Mozzarella is just a thin wall encasing an oozing blend of cream and Mozzarella. Served as an antipasto, the Burrata is sprinkled with olive oil, salt and pepper and garnished with grape tomatoes and arugula.
Integral To Dining
For those patrons who, like Paolini, believe that cheese forms an integral part of the dining experience, Osteria del Principe also offers a variety of choices from throughout Italy. Selec-tions from the formaggi course include Asiago d’Allevo, a semi-hard raw cow’s milk cheese from the Veneto; Bella Lodi, aged, raw cow’s milk cheese from Lombardi; Taleggio, a hearty textured, buttery cow’s milk cheese from Lombardy; and Mozzarella di Bufala, a mild, slightly sour cheese from Campagna.
Cheese-loving guests also can order a sampler plate of three different selections that includes 24-month-old Montasio, Bella Lodi and Taleggio, served with a garnish of ginger, walnuts, pear, honey and diminutive onions flavored with balsamic vinegar.
Osteria del Principe also prepares much of its own pasta. The kitchen turns out fresh gnocchi, lasagna, pappardelle and tagliolini every day for such dishes as Pappardelle al Porcini and Gnocchi alla Speck with radicchio, cream and walnuts. Polenta, a longtime staple of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, also makes an appearance in a preparation containing Asiago cheese and porcini mushrooms — and which can be prepared for a table of four to share family style.
Family, in fact, enters into the osteria’s picture in more ways than one. Paolini is justifiably proud of one particular dish featured on the menu, Goulash alla Triestina, which is based on a recipe provided by her mother. Cortese adapted the traditional, long-simmering beef stew from Trieste for the restaurant. The goulash calls for equal parts beef and onions as well as paprika, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, sage, paprika and tomatoes, and is accompanied by either polenta or gnocchi.
The recipe for Jota, a flavorful local soup, is another gift from Paolini’s mother. A staple of Friulian cuisine, Jota is prepared with smoked pork, sauerkraut, beans, herbs, bay leaf and cumin, a spice commonly used in Triestine cookery.
Osteria del Principe refreshes its menu three times a year — spring, summer and fall — but there are specials every day that can reflect whatever ingredients might be available seasonally, says Paolini.
What doesn’t change, however, is Osteria del Principe’s mission to please its guests and make them feel comfortable. “We try to build relationships with our customers,” says Paolini. “We’re always here to help them. We want to give them a true Northern Italian dining experience.” CC
Osteria Del Principe
27 E 23rd St, New York, NY 10010 | 646-596-7864
All photos courtesy of osteria del principe nyc/thecreativeshake