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At the time, Marilyn was spooning into a tart but fresh-tasting mixed-berry sorbet. I asked her which dishes she hadn't liked at meals past, but she couldn't remember. Neither could I, though I haven't loved every dish I've ordered at Lidia's since it opened in 1998, and I am in the bad habit of ordering the same signature dishes: the pollo con limone e olive (pan-seared chicken breasts glazed with a roasted-lemon-and-olive sauce) and the exquisite osso buco, simmered for so long that the veal tumbles off the bone.
With Lidia's preparing to celebrate its sixth anniversary in October (an event marked by one of Bastianich's quarterly appearances), I realized I hadn't reviewed the place for the Pitch. I haven't taken notes on a meal there since Duerr was in the kitchen and Mary Simpson, now the managing partner at Capital Grille, was directing the front of the house.
Has the place changed? Only for the better, thanks to co-owner David Wagner's bright ideas (which include encouraging his father, Richard, to maintain the beautiful garden of flowers and herbs outside the restaurant's front door); the theatrical but timeless interior created by New York architect David Rockwell; and the talents of Swinney, chef de cuisine Cody Hogan and pastry czarina Rachel Lauer.
Over the years, I've lost interest in the restaurant's most popular novelty, the trio del giorno sampling of three fresh pasta concoctions that servers pile onto plates (and refill, the menu says, "as much as you like") from big, silvery pans. I like the concept a lot; it's an innovative way to lure patrons into trying offbeat pasta dishes, such as ravioli stuffed with summer squash. But I've always preferred Lidia's meat dishes, even to the fanciest carbohydrates.
My friend Ned insists that Swinney's interpretations of the Bastianich repertoire are superior to those of his predecessor, particularly the braised lamb shank, which he remembers as chewy and stringy when the place first opened. But that was also before Wagner started buying lamb from Pennsylvania-based Jamison Farms, which is why Swinney's version of lo stinco di Agnello is so succulent. "It's totally emotionally satisfying," Ned said this time, looking around the dining room and commenting on the other customers. "Are those two Catholic priests at that table?" he said in a stage whisper. "Oh, I guess not, since there's no liquor on the table."
I blushed with embarrassment, because they were indeed Catholic priests. "Don't worry -- they didn't hear me," Ned snapped as he plucked a wedge of focaccia from a wooden basket on the table. My friend Bob rolled his eyes, then turned to Janice, our gorgeous waitress, and brazenly ordered the pollo con limone e olive before I could insist on having it for myself. Bob had made a fortuitous choice, though, because it forced me to turn my attention to a grilled pork chop that arrived luscious and thick, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette and accompanied by two grilled Missouri peach halves and a mound of spicy braised greens.
Because it was another Sunday night, Ned and I had finished one of the family-style Caesar salads before dinner (it usually serves four, but we were ravenous), and Bob already had eaten one of Bastianich's innovations: arugula tossed with walnuts, gorgonzola and slices of sweet pear. We logically should have stopped right there, but we went on to eat every bite of our dinners and our desserts: the silken, milky-white panna cotta custard for Bob and a plate of freshly baked Italian cookies and candied orange peel for Ned and me to share. Distressingly, I ate most of them. Ned alternated sips from a glass of citrusy Limoncello liquor and a cup of espresso. It made him more verbose than usual.