Monday, October 3, 2011 at 12:17 p.m.
The many fans of Casa Toscana have been mourning the loss of the Upper Eastside's cool trattoria, but Sandra Stefani has resurfaced in Bay Harbor Islands with Open Kitchen.
Stefani's light touch with Italian/Mediterranean cuisine is evident in the new lunch spot's array of soups, salads, sandwiches, pastas, and chalkboard specials. The veteran chef keeps busy behind the line and in front of the stoves, but she has a solid partner in Ines Chattas, who was general manager of Icebox Café
for the past nine years. The quality of food and service at Open Kitchen reflects the pair's serious experience in the field.
Décor is bright, white, airy, and country-store quaint. A cluster of tables takes up the small space up front by the shop window (which overlooks outdoor tables and a parking lot). The kitchen line, open to the café (hence the name Open Kitchen), takes up most of the rest of the rectangular space. A narrow aisle between the wall and cooking counter (with baked goods displayed) is adorned with wine bottles and shelves brimming with interesting Italian imports, many of which are used in the cooking.
Pink lentil hummus.
"Nibblers" presents snacks such as chicken liver mousse, sweet-and-sour Italian eggplant dip, and hummus culled from pink lentils puréed with olive oil and a gentle touch of garlic. Each comes with focaccia squares lightly toasted on the grill ($5 each, $12 for three). The same bread accompanies white bean soup with spelt and rosemary and the soup of the day ($6).
A fresh square of ciabatta holds slender slices of mild turkey meat loaf sandwiched with light tomato-basil sauce and melted fresh mozzarella. Lightly dressed greens linger alogside on the plate ($10). Pork belly BLT on multigrain bread looked good too. A pan-seared fish wrap in wheat tortilla ($14, with side of pink lentil salad) is another of the half-dozen sandwich offerings.
Turkey meatloaf sandwich.
Stefani's pastas have always been praiseworthy. A daily special of bright yolk-yellowed raviolini of fresh pasta came stuffed with puréed pear and ricotta, the pouches bathed in sumptuous truffle butter and topped with planks of Pecorino cheese. Beverages include Italian wines, craft beers, and house-made lemonade (with or without basil).
What sets Open Kitchen apart from other newly heralded lunch spots is that the food and service are personal reflections of the chef/manager/owners. If the food isn't fresh and delicious, and service is lousy, there is no place for the two women to hide: They are responsible, and they are right there. But of course the food is fresh and delicious and service shines because they are responsible and right there.
Stefani's Italian cooking classes
have been missed along with her former restaurant, but they too have returned. They take place Saturdays and are limited to eight students.
Casa Toscana is gone, but not Sandra Stefani. Long live Open Kitchen. You will like this place.
Lunch Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
1071 95th St., Bay Harbor