If you say “Erminia” to an Italian, they will more than likely picture an elderly woman. “They will probably grin at you, because it is like our ‘Ethel’ or ‘Betty,'” Cristina Goldbaum, the current owner of Erminia, explained. The restaurant is named for her grandmother, a choice that shows how much the romantic hotspot is tied to family.
Nicola Orobello, Cristina’s father, arrived in New York in the 1960s, shortly after marrying Cristina’s mother. Cristina’s mother, Stella, comes from a big restaurant family, the Lattanzis, who quickly filled New York City with eateries that celebrated Roman cuisine. Cristina proudly rattled off a few examples – Tevere, a kosher Roman restaurant on East 84th Street, Va Bene on Second Avenue, and Pepolino, a Tuscan-inspired restaurant in Tribeca. When Nicola opened Erminia in 1982, he was in good company, Cristina said. “We’re very deeply a family-run restaurant – we’re on top of every nut and bolt.”
Erminia’s cuisine is ‘Roman’ rather than ‘Italian.’ This means that there are a lot of wood-grilled foods, including the pounded veal chop and lamb chops, two signature items. I learned from Cristina that the Roman way of cooking is defined by a lot of grilling as well as a lot of influence from Jewish cuisine, due in part to the Roman Jewish Ghetto. The “Carciofi Alla Giudia,” meaning “Artichokes in the Jewish Style,” is one of the most popular dishes at Erminia. Another favorite plate, according to Cristina, is the Rotolo di Pasta, made with hand-rolled pasta, spinach, ricotta, mozzarella, and tomato sauce. While she admitted that this last dish sounds like something one can order anywhere in Italy, she emphasized, “We don’t really serve typical Italian dishes.” There are a few items on the menu that span northern and southern Italy, but the cuisine is mainly Roman.
Cristina stressed, “We are very particular about the quality of the food. We’re pretty obsessive about it.” Everything is handmade – “Not one thing is pre-cooked. Ever.” Cristina believes that this is one of the primary reasons that the restaurant has been such a success for over thirty years. “You receive a consistent experience each time you come here.”
In addition to the food, Erminia owes its longevity and success to the ambience and decor. Cristina told me that when her father built the restaurant, he wanted it to be “rustic, warm, and cozy.” His dream was certainly realized: between the ivy-covered mysterious exterior and the candle-lit interior, it is easy to imagine that diners are in a romantic Italian hideaway. “It has a chalet feel,” Cristina said, “A throwback feel.” Nicola’s original design has lived on through the restaurant’s entire lifespan. “Not one piece of decor has changed from Day One,” Cristina assured me.