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Trattoria Italienne – LOST GEM 2020

Trattoria Italienne – LOST GEM 2020

19 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10010

The front windows of Italienne welcomed in the warm afternoon light reaching across 24th street to bathe the rustic wood floors and metal countertops of the trattoria’s front room. Once the door had closed behind us, we felt like we could have been up in the hills of a French Provençal town overlooking the Mediterranean  –  except as we turned to look back out the window, a telltale New York water tower looked right back at us. The juxtaposition of place, between the smells and materials inside and the cityscape beyond the glass, was beautiful: enough to make us catch our breath, and certainly enough to draw us farther into to comforting space of the dining room, where General Manager and owner James King was ready to welcome the Manhattan Sideways team and share with us the story of Italienne.

Both King and partner, Chef Jared Sippel, spent a significant amount of time traveling and living abroad before coming together to work on Italienne. They shared with us that they had learned much about their craft from those they lived and worked with outside of the United States. Unsurprisingly, along with time spent in the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, Northern Africa and Asia, both Sippel and King lived for a long while in France and Italy, before both, eventually, moved to San Francisco to join the team at Fresca Peruvian Kitchen.

When asked what lessons they had brought from their travels to the tables of Italienne, King emphasized the quality of product and use of local produce and proteins whenever possible –  just as would be true of the Michelin-starred country restaurants similar to those on the farms King worked for while traveling. While many of the products used in the restaurant are indeed local, many of them are also carefully sourced from small family farms across Southern Europe. The anchovies, for example, come from Spain, the spices from North Africa, and the prosciutto from Italy. And, of course, the curated selection of wines that fills the cellar perfectly matches the flavor profile of the regional cuisine and the local produce.

The team at Italienne strives to create intimate relationships with all of their sellers, no matter where they are based, and make routine trips to visit the families they support, whether they are in upstate New York or Southern France. The European sellers even make it over to New York once in a while, where they join the team at Italienne for family dinners.

Since its opening in 2016, Italienne has evolved quickly: 24th Street has seen a flurry of new businesses and a consequent change in character, and Italienne has had those environmental changes to respond to, as well as two years of loyal customers to learn from. Aiming to create the best experience possible for their visitors, Sippel and King reevaluated their original organization of the trattoria into a front and back dining room (taverna-style dining), and decided to create a single, unified menu for the whole space. King explained, “We’re still true to ourselves, but we’ve evolved into something where we don’t come with an explanation. If you want to take it there, if you want to geek out on any of our liquors or food products or vendors, we’ll go [there], we can do it – you want to do a tasting menu? We have that . . . But if you want to come in and have a plate of prosciutto, have a glass of wine and catch up with some friends when you made a left instead of a right, and you ended up at the door, you can enjoy yourself.”

Meanwhile, a small but telling change can be noted in King’s transition from suit-and-tie-wearing Maître-D to spiffy host in a button-down and slick leather shoes – a nod to the urban world that lies beyond the doors of Italienne, and to the wish for the customers to feel welcomed and at home in the space.

The changes have been rewarded: May 2018 was the busiest month of the year so far. Many things have not changed, however. The story, vision and inspiration behind the restaurant remain the same. As Sippel said, he is “not just making up dishes,” but is sharing the story behind the products and recipes he uses.

Italienne is a learning environment – a bedtime story with a deeply rooted history, but the narrative is not dished out on an obvious silver platter. There is no map on the table in front of you to remind you of the shared borders and tangled characters between France and Italy, but if one is paying attention, they will see, feel, and taste it everywhere – not just in the decoration or the food, but also in the manner of the staff, many of whom have been working for Italienne since its opening.

This sense of togetherness and loyalty was reaffirmed by the family-style meal that was being spread across the bar as the Manhattan Sideways team made its way out of the restaurant. King, glowing with humble pride, said of Italienne, “There’s not a ton of restaurants you can walk into every night and see the owners there working the floor, cooking in the kitchen, greeting you at the door with a smile, seating you . . . it’s the same faces behind the bar and at the tables. A trattoria is a family restaurant. When we added Trattoria to the name ‘Italienne’ we very much embraced that aspect of us.”